Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Project Terrible: Branded

Welcome back to Project Terrible. Today I'm reviewing a film brought to me by Al, who decided to give me a pretentious film for Project Terrible this time instead of waiting for his birthday like he usually does.

So yeah, fair warning that I'm about to get really long-winded, as per usual when I review this sort of film.

Branded is the story of Misha, an advertising executive in Russia who is fed up with his job and decides to help his boss' niece, who wants to make a new reality show involving an overweight woman who decides to become beautiful by undergoing multiple cosmetic surgeries. When things go wrong and his life is thrown in to disarray, he makes a sacrifice of a red cow and gains the ability to see brands as creatures and...

Wait, what?

Yeah, so, basically, Branded is a rather strange film that seems to exist to argue that our advertising goes too far--that it's gone beyond informing people about products and has become a form of thought control. The film's general point, argued by Misha as the final act nears, is that brands used to originate from the will of the people, but now the will of the people originates from brands.

So let's talk about what this film does well. There's...quite a lot, actually. This is actually a pretty high-quality production--I'm used to films that make these sorts of points looking like they were put together on about $300 and worked on whenever people could spare a few minutes over the course of a few years, but this looks fine. The CG the film eventually starts using isn't of the greatest quality, but that actually kind of works in its favor to add a surreal and obviously strange atmosphere. For the rest of it, the film limits itself to what it can manage and doesn't overstep its funding or abilities, so we're good there.

The acting is...pretty much spot on. Branded features quite a good cast, with all major actors able to capture all the emotions they're supposed to be presenting very well. This is one of those things that can make or break a film, and also one of those things that more artsy films often fail in. In many films that are trying to make a point or get all artistic and strange, the cast is just kind of there because they have to be there for the film to exist. They end up quite dull and pull you out of the movie, damaging its potential. In Branded, on the other hand, the characters seem fully presented and the cast is well and truly capable of bringing them to life. Of particular note is Misha, who the film spends most of its time focusing on and who therefore absolutely has to be believable...and very much is. He's a very interesting and very much imperfect character, and there's a lot of nuance to his portrayal.

I also very much appreciated that for the most part, the film remembered to be a story first and an argument second. I've read a number of stories--The Jungle, for example--which were written by someone who very badly wanted to argue a point (in the case of The Jungle, "socialism is awesome") but which shot themselves in the foot by telling a great story...and then utterly abandoning said story to just become diatribes on whatever they were arguing. The Jungle is a wonderful and heart-wrenching story, but the conclusion is utter murder to get through because all trace of the characters and their motivations disappears and all that you get is "Main Character goes to X and Person speaks to him about Socialism." Over...and over...and over. Branded mostly avoids that particular mistake. It allows its story to slip sometimes, but not to near as much a degree as other films or stories I've seen. (Birdemic, anyone?)

Finally, let's note the film's general sense of humor and strangeness. It was...actually fairly refreshing. There's a lot of very fun and even clever humor in the film, from some of the fake advertisements to cute interjections and flashbacks (like Misha learning the three laws of marketing when working on his first real job, the third of which is "Get paid up front, because no one believes in marketing"). I really appreciate that the filmmakers were willing to have fun with this. They don't overuse humor, but they bring it in just enough to make the film pretty easy to watch overall.

If this sounds like a glowing isn't. There are some points where this film just completely crashes and burns, and as much as I did find things to compliment about it, I really can't say I liked it. But all of the above things really are great elements of a flawed film--I have to give credit where credit is due.

So, let's talk about the bad.

Branded remembers to be a story first and an argument second, but it is at the same time still very clearly an argument. It never lets you forget it. It's very in-your-face about it. Criticism of advertising and its power to shape culture is ever-present in the film, and there's really not a single character associated with advertising (including Misha himself) who looks like a good guy in the film. Considering that that covers, oh, every notable character in the movie, that's a major issue. Branded does not take a nuanced approach by any means, portraying its chosen targets pretty much as scumbags interested in profit at any cost and without regard to morality, willing to sacrifice human choice and even human lives to get what they want. Unfortunately, in a story, this means that the viewer is honestly left without much of anyone to root for...and that, despite the well-written characters, took me out of the movie quite a bit and made it hard to want to find out what happened next.

Furthermore, while it again remembers to be a story most of the time, Branded can get really, really preachy. There are notable moments where characters give pretty lengthy speeches on the topic of the power of brands or advertising and such and might as well have just looked right at the camera and held up a posterboard with "THIS IS THE POINT" written on it. Of particular note are some of Misha's speeches towards the end of the film, particularly the one in which he explains the film's premise pretty blatantly (the whole "brands used to be defined by the will of the people, but now brands define the will of the people" thing). The film manages to keep the characters in character while doing this...but only because it defines its characters as people willing to go off on long-winded tangents about this sort of stuff.

Next up? The narrator. I agree that this film needed one...but it didn't need to be some faceless voice that doesn't have a relation (well, an intelligent relation, anyway) to anything that's going on. We get a lot of narration in the movie to close up some time gaps or handle some of the flashbacks, and it really hurts the film when the narration isn't coming from a character we know. It honestly should have been Misha himself--we could get kind of a Burn Notice thing going on, especially in the early film with the humorous flashbacks and stuff. Instead, the narrator just seems disconnected from events. They do eventually reveal who the narrator is. It's not satisfying.

Let's talk about the film's overall structure, too. The vast majority of this film is a moderately odd but at least somewhat realistic story about an advertiser trying to get out from under the wing of his boss (who is secretly an American spy real reason, as it adds precisely nothing to the film) and make partner at his company. Things happen, he gets romantically involved with his boss' niece while helping her with a project, he gets decked by his boss...there's some weirdness with a conspiracy of fast food executives intentionally sabotaging a reality show about trying to lose weight, but by and large this sticks within the normal realm.

Then midway through the movie, Misha basically loses everything, goes out to the fields and lives alone, and eventually sacrifices a red cow as part of an ancient ritual (the ritual's actual purpose is to cleanse those who came in contact with the dead, but the film claims it was to reveal things that could not be seen). And then...the movie goes bonkers, with Misha suddenly able to see these CG things everywhere representing people's desires and the brands that inspire them. This stuff is nearly omnipresent for the remainder of the movie.

What's the problem? The two halves don't really fit together. They do somewhat as a story (this isn't a Birdemic-level thing with two totally separate tales glued together via sex scene), but not at all in tone. You just can't do this. You can't have nearly a full movie with virtually nothing at all out of the human realm and then, with maybe a fourth of the film left to go, very suddenly introduce brands as living creatures in CG form that exist in a parasitic relationship with humans and have all this crazy stuff happening everywhere. It totally throws the viewer for a loop and it just seems silly.

To put it another way: the film's villain is not the fast food conspiracy that seems to be the villain in the start of the film. It's the very idea of advertising, and that doesn't get introduced as the villain until the final act. 

This is like if The Lord of the Rings was two and a half books of Frodo just kind of strolling around the countryside with a ring and a few hobbit buddies, having a good time and seeing the sights, with a vague suggestion the ring was important, and maybe solved some totally human-and-hobbit troubles with no mention of Sauron, and then in the last half of the third book, boom, orcs and ring-wraiths. I don't care how well you do the orcs and ring-wraiths part, then, it won't work with what came before!

Or, think about if Star Wars was just about Luke trying to go become a rebel pilot--the entire movie is just him arguing with his aunt and uncle and wanting to go, and this family conflict about him on the farm and such...and then at the very end of the film he gets to go and boom, Darth Vader and the Death Star. It'd just seem completely nuts!

The transition doesn't really help, either. Misha's cow sacrifice comes completely out of nowhere. He doesn't research it and he hasn't shown any interest in the occult or anything like that. He just withdraws from society, meets his old girlfriend, has a dream about cows, and then builds a big old tower and sacrifices a cow on it. Why? Because, that's why.

So...what I'm trying to say, I think, is that this film would have been much stronger if it either had the whole "can see desires and brands" concept in from the start (maybe as an explanation for why Misha's an awesome advertiser, and then later begins to understand that he's been feeding the brands and that's not a good thing) or abandoned that completely and just did the film on a more human level the whole way through. The way this was done led to a complete clash of styles between the movie's two parts.

Not a heck of a lot of the movie is like this, sadly.
But wait, there's more! There's a host of more minor problems in the movie, the kind of little flubs that take you out of things just a bit. One of the film's main plot points for the later part of the movie is that the fast food conspiracy managed to change the world's perception of beauty. In six years. With one reality show controversy. So obese people are beautiful now. The problem? Outside of advertisements and Misha's kid, basically no one seems to be obese or even more than a little bit chunky. This is supposedly a world which believes that fat is beautiful, but there's a noticeable lack of overweight people out on the streets or anywhere except on TV screens.

Why is this a problem? Because this is a world where the concept of beauty has just become entirely attainable. You don't have to be dedicated to weight loss or undergo surgery to become beautiful. You just have to eat a lot of burgers. Even in our world, where muscle or slimness is considered beautiful, people rabidly pursue it to the point of physical harm. If it became so simple to be considered attractive...if all you had to do was eat and not exercise...don't you think there'd be a lot of people going right for it?

There evidently aren't in Branded, and that's a problem. It makes the film's reality...less real.

More minor problems: There's little parts of the plot that just feel like they happen because they have to, like Misha and Abby (his boss' niece) being discovered making out in their car in a traffic jam...because they just happen to be sitting in said jam right next to his boss' car. Wow. Out of nowhere revelations that just aren't needed, too, like Misha revealing that he's been faking reports to the CIA for years and got an old boss killed. Oh, and Misha somehow managing to lie to cops about knowing a man with whom he's been repeatedly publicly photographed. And nothing at all coming of Misha being the last man to see his boss alive...even when Misha meets up with Abby later. Oh, and then there's the few bits of a movie trailer that Misha's working on...which is pretty much always terrible, even once he says it's fine and it ends up working. And some of the worst voice acting I've ever heard on the other end of a phone call to Misha at one point. There's a ton more, but...this is one case where I'm not going to go into it, because this review will be long enough as it is.

Want more? Well, at this point I'm going to have to warn of spoilers, though I'm not quite sure how consequential they are.

All right, let's talk about the way the film's supposed villain, the advertiser employed by the fast food conspiracy, is taken down. Want to know how? You'd think it'd be some kind of confrontation with Misha or the conspiracy turning on him when he fails or something like that, right? Nah. Random bolt of lightning. Vaporizes him on the spot. No reason whatsoever. Yup. Underwhelming much?

What about the rest of the confrontation, then? Well, as I mentioned before, the brands basically fill the "villain" role for the last part of the film despite not actually being villains or even characters at all. So here's the idea. Misha blames the very concept of brands for what has happened to humanity through advertising. He thinks that brands control people's lives, and therefore must be destroyed. He does this by setting brand against brand, working as an advertiser for lots of brands in kind of a Yojimbo thing...he tells each to use really dirty, underhanded and unethical tactics against the others. He tells companies to lie and say that other companies' products will harm or even kill the user. (Basically, this is like if Sony and Nintendo fought over console gamers by claiming that the rival console was programmed to electrocute you if you lost a game.)

This results in no one being able to trust any brand, so all the brands start dying off. It also results, very foreseeably, in people hating the concept of advertising in general, and rioting against it. So people start dying too. Finally governments step in and ban advertising, after the crowds rise up and actively start beating Misha's coworkers to death.

I repeat, just to be clear: people beat Misha's coworkers (and attempt to beat Misha himself) to death, and governments ban advertising entirely to resolve the unrest.

The beatings are portrayed as an unintentional side effect of Misha's plans, but the advertising ban? That's his goal. And it is very much portrayed as a positive thing, the start of a new utopian existence where no one will be controlled into buying anything.

Ahh...a world free of advertising. Also, presumably, of economics.
I'm not going to get into a huge discussion on this, but I hope it's pretty clear that precise definitions of free speech and what's okay and not okay to say aside...banning advertising entirely is a catastrophically stupid decision that would more than likely result massive economic consequences and destroy quite a lot of business. At the very least, companies have to be able to inform consumers of new products, and need to be able to notify consumers of the benefits of those products. Maybe you can restrict exactly what companies can say or some such, or require companies to be able to prove benefits and restrict them from negative advertising, but...banning it outright? No questions asked? Worldwide? Can you say "collapse of the global economy?"

This is where Branded just kind of throws its point off a bridge. It actually fairly effectively (if sometimes in a preachy manner) argues that advertising has too great an influence and is in danger of progressing to active thought control...but then the proposed solution is worse than the problem, and it doesn't even recognize it! 

Here's the other problem. Branded gives way too much credit to advertising's power to sway the minds of people. Does advertising make some pretty unreasonable claims at times, and do people believe them? Sure. But is it actually thought control? I don't think so, personally. I think advertising is enough to get people in the door to a place, but unless you're putting some kind of horrible addictive substance in your product, you keep customers through good service, good products, and convenience. I go to Wendy's a lot when I come home from work. Why? Not because of ads. I go there because it's right on the way home and the spicy chicken sandwiches are to my taste. I don't go to McDonald's nearly as often. You know why? It's not because of advertising. it's because McDonald's isn't on my most direct route home. I like the burgers fine, but it isn't on my route and no amount of advertising is going to make me go out of my way.

That is, my choice to go to Wendy's has much more to do with its convenience and my experiences with the food there than it does with advertising. At some point in my life, advertising got me into a Wendy's. But the power of advertising stopped there, and it was up to the staff and products to keep me.

Similarly, I'm just not going to like coffee no matter how much advertising to do. I don't like the taste, and advertising can't change that.

The point is that advertising isn't active thought control and doesn't control people's lives. There is definitely some advertising that is unethical (holy crap, political ads), and there are definitely people who obsess too much too easily with the newest, hottest thing...but by and large, I think people are brought in by advertising but stay because of service and quality. In Branded's world, it seems the other two parts don't matter--it's all in the advertising, and if you advertise you can keep people coming back again and again no matter what else happens. And the only thing that can stop it? The advertising of another company. People are robots and just do what they're told. I'm pretty cynical about a lot of things, but even I've never sunk that low.

Additionally, there's something of a false portrayal here in terms of the idea of exclusivity--that is, if a customer comes to your brand, they are not going to a competitor's brand, ever. I mentioned before that I go to Wendy's more than McDonald's due to location. I go to McDonald's at other times, though. It's not like I chose one and will never choose the other. I go to Nature's Table, too. I go to lots of places. I shop at CVS and Walgreens. I'm not trying to say I'm a unusual--I'm trying to say I'm pretty normal in this regard. I don't think I'm the only person in the world like that. So...I really have to doubt the film's portrayal of a winner-takes-all slugfest between brands towards the end.

Not to mention, y'know what it looks like when all the brands are dead? You're getting all your goods from one location. No competition, no need to compete for quality, price, and such. That's the sort of thing that goes wrong in cable monopolies, and it's also the sort of thing that goes wrong in state-controlled industries...which this film itself argues against (in an honestly pretty fun, if preachy, little speech by Misha about the rise and fall of the Soviet Union from a marketing perspective).

Heck, Branded itself is a great little example of the limits of the power of advertising. If you've ever seen the trailer, the vast majority of it is from the last parts of the film. So if you go see the movie because of the trailer, you'd be rather disappointed, since it's nothing like said trailer. Guess how people react when that happens? Yeah, it's not good. Branded's trailer is great. Branded itself has terrible ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, low ratings on IMDB, and was savaged by critics. Oh, and it's showing up in Project Terrible. While sometimes some decent films sneak in here, being nominated for this is not exactly a ringing endorsement of a film's quality. So, yeah. The trailer might have gotten people in, but the film's quality let them down. That's that, isn't it?

So...that little tirade done and dusted, what's my overall reaction to Branded? Well...I think it's a film that has a lot of potential, but just doesn't work overall. It has a lot of strengths, but its weaknesses really drag it down. It gets too preachy, it loses focus sometimes, it has well-written but nevertheless unlikeable main characters, and it has a serious and damaging shift of style and tone towards the end. It starts out kind of interesting and turns into a real train wreck by the end. I struggled a lot with this one, but I can definitely end up calling it terrible. It's has decent production quality and good's just a shame that it really goes off the rails and destroys itself in the end.

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