Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Columbia-TriStar, widescreen 2.35:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC], French Digital Stereo, subtitles: English, Spanish, French, double side-single layer, 28 chapters, Talent Files, Theatrical Trailers, rated R, 128 min., $24.95, street date 5/2/2000.
Directed by Kevin Smith. Starring Linda Fiorentino, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Alan Rickman, Chris Rock, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, George Carlin, Salma Hayek, Jason Lee, Bud Cort, Alanis Morissette.
One of the most talked-about movies of the year is also one of the funniest! In this hilarious comic fantasy from writer/director Kevin Smith two banished angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) find a loophole that would get them back into Heaven. The only snag? They'll be destroying existence in the process. In an effort to stop them, the overworked Voice of God (Alan Rickman) taps cynical mortal Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) to save the world by preventing the angels from reaching their unholy destination: New Jersey! Throw in two unlikely prophets named Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith), the quick-witted yet little-known thirteenth apostle (Chris Rock) and a sexy, former muse with a case of writer's block (Salma Hayek) and you've got a hysterical and thrilling race against time packed with an all-star cast that Entertainment Weekly called "one of the ten best movies of 1999!"
When he's good, Kevin Smith can be very good, as we saw in his initial effort, the very rough but clever and witty Clerks. However, when he's bad, Smith is completely moronic and unfunny, as I saw in Mallrats. I still haven't seen the follow-up to that last piece of dreck - 1997's Chasing Amy, for which I'll wait until the Criterion DVD finally appears - but I did check out last year's controversial comedy Dogma.
In fact, Dogma is the only Smith film I've seen theatrically, and it pretty well sums up all of the plusses and minuses of his work. On one hand, the guy tends to be a very stiff and uncreative filmmaker; as he himself readily admits, he has very little flair for the visual, and while this facet of his work has steadily improved, he's still far behind more technically accomplished peers.
Also, Smith tends to throw too much material at the wall and then pray that some sticks. Inevitably, most films that use this approach yield some laughs, but the proportion is pretty low. Smith usually fares better than most in that regard, but I can't help but think that some more judicious weeding out of the comic wheat from the chaff would ultimately create more consistently satisfying films.
Nonetheless, Dogma makes for a generally watchable movie. To be sure, many parts of it misfire, but not as badly as the clunkers in Mallrats, and Smith's most accomplished cast to date helps keep even the bad material from completely failing. That wasn't the case with the community theater-worthy cast of Mallrats, but even terrible writing can come across decently in the hands of veterans like Alan Rickman.
Indeed, Rickman is probably the most consistent acting pleasure to be found in Dogma; almost no matter what he does, Rickman provides a droll and stimulating presence. Most of the rest of the cast does well also. I really liked Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, as their long-time buddies vibe really came through in these roles; such a facet of the relationship seemed important to the characters - who indeed had been together for millennia - and it makes their parts of the movie work better than they otherwise might.
One major surprise was how much I liked Jason Mewes' Jay in Dogma. I'd found Jay's stoner moron act amusing in Clerks but completely irritating in Mallrats; indeed, Mewes may have been my least favorite aspect of that film (and that's really saying something, considering how much I disliked the movie).
However, the situation has completely changed here, and Mewes generated the majority of the film's laughs for me. The guy still can't act, but his timing seems improved, and he's toned down the act from the egregious heights of Mallrats - thankfully, no more of that "snoochie boochie" junk! Smith seems to have funneled ore good lines to Jay, but I also think that Mewes himself elevated the material to some degree; he tends to mumble too much - a fair amount of his material is hard to decipher - but he still makes it work. Can't wait to see what I think of him in Chasing Amy.
Despite my overall satisfaction with the cast, it does have some problems. Sexy Linda Fiorentino occasionally stumbles as the film's lead; she's easily the most grounded person in the picture, but Fiorentino sometimes comes across as oddly disengaged and stiff. I like Chris Rock but found him to be way over the top here. He tends to shout most of his lines and he kills a lot of decent material; it seems odd that a seasoned professional would provide such poor delivery, but perhaps he relied to much on his stage timing and didn't concentrate enough on adapting his style to the screen.
Dogma finds Smith aiming at a target larger than his usual small relationship comedies, and he's probably about as successful as we could expect. The film doesn't succeed as well as the more coherent Monty Python's Life Of Brian, but it manages a similarly acerbic but not unreligious view of the way folks attempt to follow God. It could have been tighter, but Dogma still makes for a funny and occasionally thoughtful view of the situation.
Dogma appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 and in a fullscreen on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the letterboxed image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen version was reviewed for this article. With a 128 minute movie plus two trailers, the quality of Dogma pays a price; while it could have been worse, it seemed clear that the lowered bit rate necessary to pack so much data onto this DVD takes its toll on the image.
Sharpness seems hit the hardest. Much of the film looks pretty crisp and well-defined, but I also detected an abnormally high number of scenes that were soft and fuzzy. Wide shots are affected the most greatly, and most close-ups seem clearer, but even those scenes occasionally show some softness. Anamorphic downconversion artifacts seemed largely absent, but I noticed a few instances of jagged edges and moiré effects. The print itself looked pretty clean, but I saw some occasional speckling. Digital artifacts also appear at times.
Colors seemed pretty bold and well-saturated, though some slight blandness accompanied them at times; while the hues generally looked good, they could also appear more flat than I thought appropriate. Black levels are probably the best part of this image, as they look wonderfully deep and rich, and shadow detail also seems good. Columbia-Tristar (CTS) have a terrific reputation for excellent picture quality, and this effort won't ruin their name, but it does seem disappointing.
Better is Dogma's Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The soundfield is somewhat modest but generally effective. The front channels receive the highest level of activity and do a pretty nice job of creating a strong atmosphere. They're at their best during more action oriented scenes like the fight on the train, or the climactic showdown at the church; the rest of the time the sides tend to provide a mild ambience. The rears also mainly offer ambient sounds, and I noted little in the way of split surround usage, but they did a decent job of supporting the mix.
Quality seems erratic but generally good. Dialogue is the weakest link, as it often sounded artificial and dubbed; it was clear and intelligible, but the lack of natural qualities distracted me. Effects are always pretty crisp and realistic, and the track lacks distortion. Music sounds best of the bunch, especially because of the terrific low end. The effects also boast this solid bass, but that factor does more to push the music and make it power the soundtrack. One note: the audio for Dogma seems a lot louder than most movies, so take volume-related precautions.
As many know, CTS are preparing a special edition DVD for Dogma. While it's disappointing that this initial release doesn't contain those supplements, I guess I won't accuse CTS of the old bait and switch, since it's fairly well-known that the SE will arrive later, so those who'd prefer it can save their bucks. However, it would have been better if they'd formally announced that release at the same time this movie-only edition hit the press releases, since that would have made it much clearer; less Web-savvy folks probably won't know about it and will likely be annoyed when it appears later this year.
In any case, this edition is all we have now, and it actually does toss in a few very minor supplements. Trailers for both Dogma and The Opposite of Sex, and we also get "Talent Files" for eight of the actors plus Smith; while these remain pretty brief and sketchy, they're actually better than the usual useless listings found on most CTS DVDs. Finally, some short but reasonably decent production notes can be found in the DVD's booklet. One note: don't read the text until you've watched the film. In fact, don't even look at the pictures, because both may ruin some surprises.
By no stretch of the imagination can Dogma be considered a great film, but it's nonetheless witty and provocative enough to be worth a screening. The picture on the DVD seems a bit weak - apparently due to lowered bit rates so that two versions of the film can fit on one disc - but the audio seems pretty good; supplements are essentially nonexistent.
Despite my conditional recommendation of the film, I'd have to urge you to wait until the special edition DVD of Dogma appears. It seems certain to provide at least equivalent - and probably improved - picture and sound, and the supplemental features will definitely be more interesting. Smith's films have (so far) made for some very good SEs, so I think it'll be worth the wait. If you're dying to see Dogma now, rent it and save your purchasing power for the SE.
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