Branded is about a cow-shaped constellation that appears to fire lightning bolts onto a marketing expert, who subsequently participates in a corporate branding war in which giant gelatinous balloon-like demon creatures fight each other for global domination. Oh, and you can only see the demons after slaughtering a red cow. Or at least that’s what I think the movie’s about; sorta, maybe.
If you need to go back and re-read that monumentally first confusing sentence at least five times, if not ten, don’t fret: You’ve just replicated the experience of sitting through one of the most inexplicable films ever made. Arriving in theaters without press screenings, or advance press of any kind really, this sci-fi piece/faux-infomercial/nonsensical glop inspires a lot of questions. The most pressing: What poor SOB did co-writers/directors Jamie Bradshaw and Alexander Doulerain dupe into funding this?
The filmmakers would have a tough time summarizing the plot, if such a thing were even possible. But in its simplest sense, the movie stars Ed Stoppard as Misha Galkin, marketer extraordinaire. In post-Communist Moscow he’s the mastermind behind all sorts of great deals, but when a giant conspiracy takes hold, centered on a cosmetic surgery-themed reality show he’s producing with Abby Gibbons (Leelee Sobieski), things take a very, very, very strange turn for the worse.
That doesn’t explain the presence of Jeffrey Tambor, overacting like never before as Misha’s boss and Abby’s uncle, or the presence of Max Von Sydow as a mysterious expert marketer manipulating fast food advertising from an island estate (please, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t ask). It sure doesn’t begin to touch on the cows, or those vaguely anthropomorphic alien things.
With incessant narration that’s delivered in the condescending fashion of a TV advertorial and insanely weird stylistic digressions (sudden switch to a 4:3 format, anyone?), the movie grates when it doesn’t perplex. More than anything, it feels like a confused student film, the byproduct of moviemakers with a ton of ambition and a decent budget but only the most remedial sense of how to actually tell a cinematic story. There’s simply no other way to explain the abrupt, awkward transitions, the rapid fluctuations in the characters’ relationships (they’ll nearly come to blows in one scene and have a calm conversation in the next), the lack of a structure or the basic, overriding fact that the movie makes no sense.
Once you cut through the dense narrative fog, it’s apparent that the filmmakers want to offer an Orwellian-tinged modern-day spin on John Carpenter’s immortal They Live, in which Roddy Piper took on aliens involved in pumping subliminal messages into various forms of media. But no one “chews bubblegum” in Branded, as Piper’s Nada famously put it, and the only “kicking ass” comes afterward, when you beat yourself up for wasting money on a movie that defies all common sense.
The Upside: There’s at least an effort made to be different, which is more than you can say for most throwaway movies.
The Downside: The movie’s amateurish and makes absolutely no sense.
On the Side: What happened to Leelee Sobieski? She makes the most of her part here, for whatever that might be worth, but after getting kicked into a wall of pictures by Nicolas Cage in The Wicker Man, turning up in a Uwe Boll film (In the Name of the King), and taking a lead role in this nonsense, she really should fire her agent, or whomever is helping her make career decisions, immediately.