Now (barely) playing: Branded | Bleader

Now (barely) playing: Branded

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Squishy phantoms terrorize Moscow; Leelee Sobieski takes note
  • Squishy phantoms terrorize Moscow; Leelee Sobieski takes note
Until Aleksandr Zeldovich's magisterial Target returns to Chicago (assuming it ever does), Branded will have to tide over those viewers hungry for a Russian-set sci-fi epic with ambitious wide-screen cinematography, literary allusions, and anticapitalist themes. An imaginative, overreaching pulp saga that jumps unpredictably from the brilliant to the awful (sometimes within the same scene), it's likely the strangest movie playing in town. Had a friend not asked me yesterday, on a whim, if I'd like to see it ("I hear it's the most 'what the fuck' movie of 2012!" he wrote in an e-mail), I'd still belong to the majority that hasn't given the film a moment's thought. Given Branded's poor attendance, I'm surprised that River East has held it over for a second week, albeit for one screening a day at 7:15 PM. But if you want to see something different, it won't disappoint.

The movie centers on a Muscovite advertising whiz named Misha (Ed Stoppard, son of playwright Tom Stoppard) whose genius for marketing derives partly from studying the life of Lenin and partly from magical powers he obtained from being struck by lightning as a boy. He rises to power in the immediate post-Soviet era working for an American tycoon (Jeffrey Tambor) who's among the first to bring advertising to Russia. In one section set roughly in the present, Misha gets involved in an international conspiracy (presided over by Max von Sydow!) to alter popular perceptions of beauty, only to end up a pariah when the centerpiece of his plot—a reality TV show called Russian Extreme Makeover—goes horribly awry. After hiding out for several years in the countryside, he's brought back to Moscow by the love of his life (Leelee Sobieski, looking and sounding like a young Helen Hunt), where he has visions of giant, squishy monsters growing out of people's necks. This final section, set in the near future, culminates with Misha spearheading a war against these monsters and bringing down the global advertising industry along with them.

Jamie Bradshaw and Alexander Dulerayn, who wrote, directed, and produced, have come up with enough crazy ideas to fill three or four movies, and Branded often buckles under the weight of its own invention. The film feels like the truncated version of a much longer work—or, more precisely, like the adaptation of every third chapter of an epic novel. Sequences develop a distinct momentum and tone, only to give way to something entirely different set several years later. Misha's period in the country is a particular standout: this stretch of the film, in which the hero experiences Old Testament-style visions that compel him to slaughter a red cow, briefly evokes the work of Andrei Tarkovsky in its mysticism and patient landscape shots. If the comparison sounds outlandish, note that Branded's composer, Edward Artemyev, wrote the scores for Tarkovsky's Solaris, The Mirror, and Stalker. He's one of several high-profile talents who worked on this surprisingly slick-looking production: cinematographer Rogier Stoffers previously shot School of Rock and The Vow and visual effects supervisor Robert Grasmere has worked on dozens of movies including The Running Man and the Angelina Jolie vehicle Salt.

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The early, satirical scenes about capitalism descending on Russia have a tantalizing quality. Bradshaw and Dulerayn develop a Cronenbergian mise-en-scene, making all of the interior shots models of confinement. And as in Cronenberg's films, the meticulous production design draws attention to its own falsity, suggesting that the environment onscreen reflects some unacknowledged mutation of life as we know it. In fact, Branded sometimes feels like a companion piece to Cronenberg's Cosmopolis in the way it makes late capitalism seem inherently unreal. (I may be writing this only because I've had Cosmopolis on the brain since seeing it a second time last week—and since I found its social critique so persuasive, it's inflected almost everything I've seen since. When, earlier this week, I watched Pretty Woman for the first time, every time Richard Gere's billionaire character sat down in the back of his limo, I asked my girlfriend, "Is this the part where he goes to Cosmopolis?")

It's hard to say whether the filmmakers intended the conspiracy premises to be taken seriously. So much of Branded hovers between seriousness and silliness that different viewers will likely read different meanings into it. Unmistakable, though, is the movie's rage at our culture of distraction, of which pervasive advertising only plays a part.

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