Wednesday, February 13, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: BRANDED (2012) and DOOMSDAY BOOK (2012)

(Russia - 2012)

It's hard to fathom the idea that there was actually a script for the Russian sci-fi epic BRANDED.  It feels more like a pitch that the writing/directing team of Jamie Bradshaw and Alexander Doulerain came up with between bong hits:  "OK, seriously.  Duuuude, listen.  What if the brands like, fuckin' came to life, man?  No, no, no, dude...seriously, check this shit out. Seriously, I'm not fuckin' around, just hear me out.  Like, we don't decide what to buy...but it's like the things we buy control us, man!  Dude!  The fuckin' corporations!  Am I right?  It's not science-fiction!  It's happening now!  Our thoughts are not our own! They decide, man!"  A disaster of ludicrous proportions, BRANDED was stealthily dumped into theaters for a week last fall by Lionsgate under its Roadside Attractions banner, where it somehow grossed $350,000.  I can't imagine anyone who bought a ticket was still in attendance when the closing credits rolled.  Russian marketing hotshot Misha Galkin (Ed Stoppard of the UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS revival and son of Oscar-winning screenwriter Tom) has been overseeing the advertising of American products and brand names in Moscow while working under powerful ad honcho and American spy Bob Gibbons (Jeffrey Tambor).  Gibbons has some strange connection to god-like marketing guru Joseph Pascal (Max von Sydow), who's hatching some master plan from a high-tech fortress in the Polynesian Islands to alter the world's perception of beauty ("We will make fat the new fabulous!" he says).  Meanwhile, Misha is working on a side project and falls in love with Gibbons' visiting niece Abby (Leelee Sobieski), helping her produce a cosmetic surgery reality show.  That idea goes down the toilet (joining everything else about BRANDED) when their star goes into a coma during surgery.  Gibbons dies, Abby disappears, and Misha becomes a fugitive.  Six years later, Pascal's "branding" has taken hold and the overweight and obese are now the supermodels and the world's beauty standard, and Abby finds Misha working as a cow herder (with Stoppard sporting one of the worst glued-on beards ever seen), and reveals that they have a son.  Misha sacrifices a red cow and bathes in its blood, which allows him to start seeing visions of gelatinous, worm-like creatures surrounding everyone and everything, and he's convinced that these are brands coming to life and controlling our desires for products and consumption.  Misha decides to fight the power by starting a guerrilla "death cow" ad campaign that bankrupts the fast food industry.  Misha starts using the same technique on other mind-controlling corporations, which results in brands mutating into giant CGI monster form and attacking Moscow.  Oh, and the whole thing is narrated by a talking cow constellation in the sky.

This actually got funded, filmed, acquired by a major company, and distributed in theaters for people to pay money to see.  It's one of the most bewilderingly awful films to come down the pike in years, filled with actors who don't seem to understand what's going on, subpar CGI effects, toothless jabs at TV advertising, movie trailers, and the corporate power structure, and satire that's simply too heavy-handed to work.  Stoppard and Sobieski just look lost, Tambor exits halfway through and hopefully got to enjoy the rest of his paid Moscow vacation, and von Sydow is clearly elsewhere, never interacting with the main actors and in front of an unconvincing greenscreen, obviously reading lines that were just given to him moments before (there's no way he read this script--he made sure the money was deposited and showed up for a day or two, tops).  Whatever ambitions Bradshaw and Doulerain had are obliterated by their utter ineptitude as writers and directors and their complete inability to establish any kind of narrative drive or pacing of the story.  Pages upon pages of dialogue are spouted by the actors and the first half of the film feels like THEY LIVE re-enacted by marketing students forced to take an improv class.  But when the giant monsters in Misha's head start attacking Moscow GODZILLA and MOTHRA-style, the film starts to look like its makers are just baked out of their skulls and the entire project is cashed.  The stunningly bad BRANDED has to be seen to be disbelieved.  (R, 106 mins)

(South Korea - 2012)

This three-part anthology film began shooting in 2006, with segments to be directed by Yim Pil-Sung, Kim Jee-Woon (A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, I SAW THE DEVIL), and Han Jae-Rim.  Yim and Kim finished their segments but the financing fell apart before Han's contribution was started. The project was shelved until 2011 when new backers entered the picture and the third segment--different from what Han was planning--ended up being directed by Yim, with some uncredited collaboration from Kim.  Opening with Yim's "Brave New World," DOOMSDAY BOOK presents three different apocalypse scenarios, kicking off with a 28 DAYS LATER-type zombie virus outbreak in Seoul stemming from bacteria in a rotten apple that made its way through a recycling plant and into some cow feed and into the eventual beef consumed at a hibachi restaurant by the hapless Seok-woo (Ryo Seung-Byum), from whose home the apple came in the first place.  Of course, flesh-eating mayhem consumes the city in a rather tired story that makes its points in ten minutes but lasts another 30, though there is one great gag involving characters in an online video game even being infected by the virus. Things take a much more philosophical turn in Kim's "Heavenly Creature," set in a future where worker robots are commonplace.  One such robot, an outdated RU4 unit called In-Myung (voiced by THE HOST's Park Hae-Il) works at a Buddhist monastery and has achieved some kind of sentient autonomy and announces he's reached enlightenment.  A technician is called and finds nothing functionally wrong with In-Myung but the corporate CEO decides, in the best interests of the human race, that In-Myung and any RU4s still operational need to be destroyed immediately.  But the monks--who profess to live a "simple" life but all have their own cell phones--see In-Myung as a new spiritual leader.  Finally, in "Happy Birthday," the segment shot in 2011, a little girl placing a replacement order on a dubious web site for a damaged 8-ball for her billiards-obsessed dad and uncle coincides with the uncle spotting a UFO and two years later, the 8-ball is finally on its way--in the form of a giant meteor speeding toward Earth.

"Brave New World" is easily the least of the three tenuously-connected stories (though the rotten apple makes a cameo appearance in "Happy Birthday"), but the other two can almost function as stand-alone short films.  "Heavenly Creature" is beautifully shot and quite moving at times, with In-Myung earning its place as one of sci-fi cinema's most memorable robot characters.  "Happy Birthday" is the kind of inventive, clever, absurdist silliness that probably would've put a smile on Douglas Adams' face.  Even the image of a giant 8-ball in the sky looks like it belongs on the cover of a lost Adams novel.  As the poet laureate Jim Steinman once wrote for the philosopher Meat Loaf, "two out of three ain't bad," and once you get past its relatively weak opener, DOOMSDAY BOOK is an admittedly uneven but alternately powerful, profound, silly, and hilarious anthology that's well worth a look. (Unrated, 114 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

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