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Thursday, Dec. 15, 2005 01:55 am

Slick companies

All of sudden, it’s great fun bashing big business

The political tide has shifted back to ’60-style disenchantment, which could open the door to a return of activism in the movies. Some stars have always spoken their minds, but moving the soapbox to the actual movies may have greater impact. Syriana, a tale of shenanigans in the oil industry that stars George Clooney and Matt Damon, may be fueling a new wave of films targeting corruption in big business. A few films from recent years are also available. Big Oil is a good place to start — about the only friends it has left live in the White House. The Deal, a recent DVD release, wants so badly to be a hard-hitting exposé on corruption in the oil industry, but it comes up dry. Christian Slater plays an associate of an investment firm who is hired by the almost-always-sinister Robert Loggia to put together a shady merger. As a thriller, the plot is strictly by-the-numbers. Well-placed sex scenes and car chases are thrown in to relieve the boredom, but The Deal doesn’t offer any new insight into the oil crisis. The health hazards caused by the dumping of toxic waste also offer a target for filmmakers. Erin Brockovich (2000), starring Julia Roberts in her Oscar-winning role, has been the most successful of this subgenre, despite its shallow treatment of a human tragedy. Roberts received the brunt of the criticism, but her likable performance is the film’s greatest asset. More substance should be expected from director Steve Soderbergh. A Civil Action (1998) covered the same ground with far more depth and honesty. John Travolta stars as a crusading lawyer who represents the families of leukemia victims against a powerful leather company. Director Steve Zaillian keeps everything realistic and logical. There are no simplistic solutions here. Documentaries often do a better job of exposing corporate corruption and greed. Michael Moore, the progressive-activist filmmaker, first gained attention by stalking Roger Smith, the CEO of General Motors, in Roger & Me (1989). All Moore wanted to know was why GM closed plants in Michigan. Apparently the question was too painful, but Moore treats getting rebuffed by Smith and GM with great humor. Moore also makes a guest appearance in The Corporation (2003), a detailed exposé on the history of corporations and the harm they bring to the public. The film is a bit long and sometimes tedious, but many of the facts are enlightening. Ironically, corporations control the major studios, but greed always wins out over image. If you will go, they will make it.
New releases on DVD on Tuesday (Dec. 20): Serenity, The Brothers Grimm, Must Love Dogs, Four Brothers, The Great Raid, Rebound, and Cry Wolf.
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