Film Review: Branded (dir by Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Duleyran)

Is it too early to declare that Branded is the worst film of 2012? 

Probably.  After all, there’s still 3 more months left in October and who knows what could happen.  I’m still holding out hope that Zero Dark Thirty will be just as bad as I’m expecting it to be and I recently realized that I find the trailer for The Sessions to be kind of annoying.  There’s still a slight chance that I’ll see a film worse than Branded before 2013.

However, I do think that it’s safe to say that Branded is the worst film of 2012 so far.

At the very least, Branded deserves the award for 2012’s most deceptive trailer.

On the basis of the trailer, you would be perfectly justified in expecting Branded to be a rip-off of John Carpenter’s classic They Live.  You would be justified in expecting that the film would be a thriller, involving aliens using advertising to control people’s minds.

What you would not expect is that Branded would turn out to be an overlong, extremely preachy and didactic film about a Russian advertising guru who, after producing an ill-fated reality show, spends 6 years living as a shepherd until he happens to ritualistically sacrifice a red cow and is therefore inspired to lead an advertising war against fast food companies.  You wouldn’t expect the film to be such a confused mess that, while watching it, you actually find yourself standing up to leave the theater because you’ve mistakenly assumed that the film is over (as I did several times).  You also probably wouldn’t expect that the entire film would be narrated by yet another cow, this one floating around in the night sky and sending down lightning bolts to both enlighten and destroy various advertising gurus.

All of that happens and more!  And you know what?  As interesting as it may appear to be in writing, it’s all unbelievably dull when watched on-screen.  The Russian advertising genius is played by Ed Stoppard and his American girlfriend is played by Leelee Sobieski and, as a couple, they have absolutely zero chemistry.  You never believe their relationship and, as such, it’s difficult to understand why Sobieski’s character is so determined to make things work with a guy who appears to be insane.  Sobieski’s father is played by Jeffrey Tambor.  Whereas everyone else in the film underplays to the point that they sometimes appear to be sleepwalking, Tambor overplays every scene, as if he thought he was appearing in an episode of Arrested Development instead of this movie.  In the end, the best performance in the film comes from the talking cow in the sky, even if she seems awfully proud for a character who spends the entire movie spouting banal clichés.

(Seriously, did you know that advertising is a form of manipulation?  Well, you do now!  Thanks, Space Cow!)

For no particular reason, Max Von Sydow is in the film as well.  His role is really just a cameo and the entire time he’s on-screen, he’s got a small smile on his lips as if he’s saying, “Did you really pay money to watch this crap?”

In its defense, there is one — and only one — impressive scene in Branded but you can see that scene in the trailer for free.

There might be a worse film than Branded released this year.

But I doubt it.

VGM Entry 47: Sim City

VGM Entry 47: Sim City
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

I’d like to focus in depth for a moment on a soundtrack that you might not have expected to even make the cut. Sim City, composed by Soyo Oka, doesn’t get all that much praise. It’s fairly often forgotten, and almost always blown off as a mere solid effort. But I think it’s really quite a brilliant work of art–one of the Super Nintendo’s finest.

Soyo Oka got her start as a video game composer with Nintendo, working on five forgotten titles for the NES between 1988 and 1989 before graduating to the SNES and being tasked with three higher profile projects: Pilotwings in 1990, Sim City in 1991, and Super Mario Kart in 1992. For whatever reason her work load diminished a bit after that: she was charged with arranging Koji Kondo’s music for Super Mario All-Stars in 1993 and then stepped back to the NES to team up with Shinobu Amayake for the final licensed game to ever be released on the system, Wario’s Woods, in 1994. She departed from Nintendo in 1995.

It’s a shame that her career with them was so brief, because during this time her distinct, often jazzy style rose to be the second voice of Nintendo. You could always tell a Soyo Oka score from one of Koji Kondo’s despite their many similarities, and if Kondo was probably better, Oka nevertheless remains terribly under-appreciated today.

The concept of Sim City presents a bit of a musical challenge. Just how ought a city simulation in a modern setting sound? I think she completely nailed it, and I rather wish this compilation was better organized to show it. The menu music that starts at 0:45 here says it all. It’s a wonderfully visual work: the lazy trumpets and accompanying hum depict towering and stationary skyscrapers surrounded by that staccato higher pitch early morning hustle and bustle, with the rapid yet never rushing stop-and-go bass tying it all together.

Following the short Dr. Wright theme (which, I should point out, is substantially better than most of the “shopping” game tunes it resembles) we are treated (at 1:47) to the first of six population-themed songs which garudoh unfortunately fails to present chronologically. “Village” is your lowest population, and the tones she chooses are just perfect to distinguish it from a standard RPG small-town theme; it puts you in the same warm, safe place, but it still feels entirely modern, in an Earthbound sort of way.

Humor me and pause the video for a moment. The next track, “Growth”, starting at 2:33, is merely a brief interlude which really doesn’t belong here, but it’s a good opportunity to switch videos since what follows in garudoh’s is misplaced.

“Town” is a beautiful and brilliant transition. The main melody of “Village” is retained, but instead of a lazy country town you now have a population on the move beginning to become acquainted with sophistication. The classical theme perfectly retains a feeling of a small world while giving you a sense of progress which “Village” lacks.

“City” is perhaps the weakest link of the six, but you can definitely get a feeling for Oka’s intentions here. It’s a great deal faster and less stable than “Town”, but it still clings to a sense of something classical. The musical progression has reached a stage of uncertainty; a small community is on the brink of losing its identity and giving way to the future, but it has yet to make that final step. “City” is a track best appreciated in context, and I think what follows explains a lot about it.

“Capital” is definitely my favorite Soyo Oka song in any game. The opening segment is just stunning. Your population has finally taken the last step and acknowledged its collective existence. It brilliantly captures that adventurous and fleeting sensation of being an anonymous unit in a perfectly attuned machine, and it appropriately comes to an end far sooner than anyone would like, returning to the more private experience of “Village”, only now presented in a sort of dreamy, surreal state, conditioned by the memory of that brief sensation at the start of the song.

“Metropolis” lays all dreams of harmony to rest. The lazy trumpets of the menu tune are back, but here the staccato overlay is harsh and synthy, the bass down to business. It’s a real city now, not some idealistic vision of one, and this machine’s only collective consciousness is apathy triumphant. Gameplay-wise you’re getting down to business too, and if that first residential block you ever built is getting in the way of the new sports stadium, it’s time to send out the eviction notices.

“Megalopolis” is an interesting track to end on. Fast paced and pleasant, you’ve got to love the machine to get this far. The fun is in striking the perfect balance now, not in micromanaging a paradise. But the song still slows down for a moment to reflect on your roots, and for all practical purposes it’s an end credits theme. There’s no winning. There’s just perpetual motion and memory. And so the track loops on and the game continues, but in some off sense you’ve reached the end.

Soyo Oka is one of the most underrated composers in the history of the business, and Sim City is her finest work.