It's ironic that a feature like 'Branded,' which explores the evils of contemporary advertising and its power to generate consumer desire, was so badly branded and falsely marketed to the public. Not that many even cared, as evidenced by its box-office take. The film went largely unnoticed and will likely to be found at the bottom of bargain bins very soon. The producers employed many of the same tactics and schemes, with the movie's two-and-half minute trailer promising to transform into a dystopian sci-fi actioner with an alien-invasion plot at the center.
Oh, and Max Van Sydow plays a significant role, possibly a character in the middle of a global conspiracy, and the one who brings our would-be hero, Misha (Ed Stoppard), into his fold. Or at least, that's the impression we're given from the trailers. What we really get, however, couldn't be furthest from the preview's assurance.
From Aleksandr Dulerayn and Jamie Bradshaw, making his feature-length debut, the film is a dreadful trek through the joys of capitalism in modern-day Russia. Not only is the portrait the complete opposite of a dystopia, but Mischa makes laughably outrageous claims, like Lenin being the father of contemporary marketing and brand selling. The proof is in how he convinced and sold a nation on the ideas of communism. And the false advertising continues when we slowly realize there is little to no science-fiction and hardly any action in the script. Worse yet, the so-called aliens are actually visual representations of Mischa's delusion-like epiphany of consumerism.
As if these disappointments weren't enough, the movie boringly follows Mischa through the stressful highs and lows of the marketing world, implying the perverse, shocking side of selling the demand for the product, not the product creating the demand. It's as if Dulerayn and Bradshaw want this to be a Lovecraftian version of 'Mad Men,' and they make this point fairly clear when Jeffrey Tambor as a highly secretive suit says to Mischa outright he's the old-school Madison Ave type.
And despite what trailers may suggest, Mr. von Sydow's appearance in this plodding 106-minute fiasco is just that: a cameo appearance. He shows up in a couple scenes, which add up to less than ten minutes total, with him as a marketing guru spewing nonsense about making fat beautiful again. The camera, meanwhile, idealistically gazes at a neo-classical painting of three full-figured women frolicking in a forest. The false advertising courses deep in the veins of this production, thinking itself symbolic of something grander. Also, Mr. von Sydow never shares the screen with Stoppard, or anyone else of note for that matter.
Instead, Stoppard spends much of his time acting the proverbial victim turned soothsayer and humanity's savior while in the loving arms of Leelee Sobieski. Again, not quite the dystopia the trailers made it out to be. If the filmmakers disappoint at providing a compelling story, they fare even worse at characterization. As the two main leads, Stoppard and Sobieski, are complete duds, falling madly in love with one another without providing a single reason why either of them is the least bit interesting. We're expected to believe they're marketing whizzes, but their ads only succeed at making us avoid the products they're selling. One perplexing moment even has Sobieski's Abby tell Mischa the best time of her life was when the pair produced a disastrous reality TV show that lead to their arrest and her deportation. Good times, good times.
The only real shocker in this outrageously mind-numbing movie is that that the filmmakers hold out until 50 minutes into it before finally delivering something of interest. With an annoying and completely unnecessary voice-over playing in the background, an ancient ritual sacrifice awakens Mischa to the reality of manipulative advertising and brand labeling. It's also at this point we come to the realization we still have another 50 minutes to go before the end credits give us some sweet relief. And they're a painfully tedious 50 minutes through an episodic narrative living in its own imaginary moral high ground, but 'Branded' turns out to be another useless product that fails to live up to its marketing hype.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Lionsgate Home Entertainment brings 'Branded' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked, BD25 disc inside a blue, eco-cutout keepcase. After a few skippable trailers, viewers are greeted by a menu screen with full-motion clips and music.
'Branded' stamps its label of approval onto Blu-ray with a less than satisfying and mostly average 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.40:1). The cinematography comes with a low contrast, giving the movie a dreary and joyless feeling. This would be fine, especially considering the subject matter, but it unfortunately affects the rest of the high-def transfer.
Black levels take the biggest hit by fluctuating noticeably from scene to scene and making shadows appear murky, obscuring some of the finer details in the background. There are also instances of minor banding and negligible video noise. Definition could be much better, but overall, the presentation is reasonably sharp, with a few excellent moments of distinct clarity. Facial complexions are actually quite revealing, and the majority of the colors are accurately rendered, particularly the reds and greens. In the end, however, the negatives greatly outweigh the positives.
Thankfully, the low-budget sci-fi flick comes with a stronger yet still short of impressive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. The front-heavy presentation exhibits great clarity and detailing in the mid-range while the low-end provides a pleasantly powerful oomph to the action and music. Dialogue is clear and mostly intelligible with the worst spots coming from scenes with Max von Sydow, which may have more to do with him slurring his lines than a problem with the codec.
Imaging feels expansive with excellent channel separation and a few better than expected moments of envelopment. Several well-placed effects are employed in the rears, expanding the soundfield rather nicely. Crowded Russian streets and a dog's bark in the open country are a couple memorable highlights. Sadly, these same atmospherics come in a slightly louder decibel and much-too easily localized, becoming a bit of an issue during the scenes with the marketing monsters fighting each other. But aside from that, the lossless mix is enjoyable.
'Branded' wants desperately to be seen as an insightful commentary on the manipulative evils of the marketing and advertising world. It only succeeds, however, at leaving audiences in a bewildering stupor and lulling them to sleep, not the sort of awakening the filmmakers probably had in mind. The Blu-ray arrives with average video but better audio, and supplements are lacking, making the final product one to avoid.