The Good: Concept, Effects are cool at some points
The Bad: Pacing, Unremarkable acting, Lack of genuine character development, Convoluted plot
The Basics: Branded has moments of conceptual cleverness, but it is much more than the language/cultural divide that robs it of being at all enjoyable!
I have not watched a lot of Russian films. When I sat down to watch the newer film Branded, I had no idea that it was Russian. I was actually excited by the basic concept of Branded, as well, though it takes so long for the very basic concept to actually become evident and then realized. Branded is an overall disappointment and it actually had some similarities in narrative structure to the equally problematic Russian science fiction film Nightwatch (reviewed here!); the film has moments of cleverness, but is ultimately problematically executed and conceptually flawed.
Branded suffers most by the fact that it is billed as a science fiction film, but by the time it gets around to being at all fantastical, the viewer does not care at all. The characters in Branded are utterly bland, the acting is mediocre when it rises above being horrible. In fact, the only thing Branded has going for it when it rises above being boring, insultingly expository and deliberately obtuse is its concept. Trying to get around the either the language barrier (Branded is not dubbed, occasionally subtitled, and is set almost entirely in Russia) or the cultural differences between the U.S. and Russia, Branded includes infrequent voiceovers to explain what the characters are doing or feeling. Branded uses the medium poorly as it fails to clearly show much of what it tells. And what the film does show is a poor execution of the ideas of co-writers/directors Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Dulerayn.
Misha is a young Russian during the era of the Soviet Union. He grows up, barely getting by despite having some wonderful ideas about advertising. He helps a local business owner incredibly increase his vodka shop’s business and realizes he has a real talent for advertising. Striking out on his own as an advertiser, he finds himself allied with the odd, manipulative Bob, who is the uncle of Abby. Bob may actually be an intelligence agent working to destabilize the U.S.S.R. and with the fall of the Soviet Union, Misha has more opportunities to create invasive advertising in Russia as it moves to a capitalist economy. Misha and Abby begin working together and Abby’s reality show results in a reality television star they create ending up in a coma.
As Misha begins to put his life back together, he encounters a mystical force that allows him to see the reality lurking behind life’s illusions. When that happens, he begins to see parasitic organisms attaching to people all over and massive versions of those creatures atop buildings all over Moscow. Misha soon realizes that the entities that no one else can see are the living embodiments of advertising. Misha begins a one-man war to eliminate the brand-based entities by pitting companies and industries against one another in an attempt to free mankind.
Unfortunately for the viewer, the last sentence of that plot description is executed without its purpose being made evident. Instead, Misha begins a series of baffling character moves that have the net result of keeping the humans enslaved by increasingly powerful brands. After most of the film being bogged down by silly exposition, the movie loses that technique in favor for the character working on his own to no clear purpose. The problem with that is that the film becomes a revolutionary story of one man working to save the world . . . without the man ever stepping into the limelight, declaring a noble purpose or having the charisma to pull off the negotiations needed to create brands that are able to wipe out the other brands. Moreover, while the brands are going to all out war with one another, they are still preying upon people constantly.
One of the big missing components in Branded is a direction connection between Misha and the government. Instead, he sets everything into motion, much like the mysterious Marketing Guru played by Max Von Sydow who is integral to creating the brand-based lifeforms. That disconnect is devastating to telling an interesting story. Instead of that aspect of Misha’s struggle, Branded is bogged down with a convoluted relationship between Abby and Misha and the child Abby introduces Misha to after years of the two of them being apart. The love story aspect of Branded is passionless and boring.
Ed Stoppard plays Misha and he is overshadowed in the few scenes he shares with Jeffrey Tambor (who plays Bob). LeeLee Sobieski is unimpressive as Abby and she and Stoppard have less than zero in the way of onscreen chemistry. The film lacks real emotional impact both from the characters and emoted by their actors. Tambor’s initially energetic presentation in Branded fades quickly (Bob is written out remarkably fast) and Max Von Sydow is tragically underused as the primary human antagonist in the film.
Ultimately, Branded is a heavy, oppressive drama that only evolves into something akin to science fiction in its last quarter. The concept is less science fiction and more a visualization of capitalist economics and the allegory falls apart completely as the brands go to war, strengthened by Misha’s efforts to sway the public to meat, away from meat, toward a Japanese vegetarian food chain, etc. Despite hearing the concept and being intrigued by its potential, Branded falls tragically shy of what it could have been.
For other works with Max von Sydow, be sure to check out my reviews of:
What Dreams May Come
For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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