Our review of Dogma: Special Edition, published September 24th, 2001, is also available.
Get 'touched' by an angel.
Dogma, the latest creation from director Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy, Mallrats, Clerks), is a rare movie that can be insightful and thought provoking while being irreverent and funny. The film takes a look at dogma and doctrines of the Catholic church and extrapolates on what are sometimes wild scenarios that result. Throwing in a few religious devices of their own, some borrowed from other religions, we have a film that is a comedic look at a Holy quest, more important than the Arthurian legends for the Grail. The resultant controversy from religious fundamentalists and devout Catholics was largely undeserved and perhaps actually helped the film's earnings in the end. The results are a film I greatly enjoyed and highly recommend, though this DVD is only a barebones version while we all await the greatly anticipated special edition in the fall.
I loved the way the film mixes real theology with fantastic elements. Being a student of medieval history, I've been aware for a long time of the doctrine of plenary indulgences within the Catholic Church. In one of the church's many fairly despicable practices during those times, indulgences were a way for the church to generate revenue; the absolving of sin through buying it. Priests used to sell these routinely, promising that now all sins prior to the purchase were forgiven. I'm surprised we don't have a dot com company doing it today. At any rate, the film pivots on a fictional movement within the church to better it's image and allure to the public through the "Catholicism WOW" campaign headed by Cardinal Glick, played by George Carlin (Outrageous Fortune, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey). Besides a really stupid revamp of the Christ sigil into the "Buddy Christ," he has been given papal permission to bring back indulgences for the opening day of a new cathedral in New Jersey. Anyone stepping through the doors of that church on that day will automatically be forgiven of all sins. Another Catholic doctrine concerns God's agreement to follow the rules set down by the Church, when Christ told Peter "as you do on Earth I will do in Heaven" or words to that effect. This means God has to go along with even the indulgences.
Now we step to the fantastic. Two fallen angels named Bartleby (Ben Affleck, Good Will Hunting, Chasing Amy, Mallrats) and Loki (Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting, Saving Private Ryan, The Talented Mr. Ripley) were kicked out long ago from Heaven and God has stated that they shall never return. But with this loophole of plenary indulgence, the two see an opening to get back into Heaven. Once they are absolved of all sin, all they have to do is cut off their wings, therefore becoming human, and die and they will be able to go back to Heaven, defying God's decree. Unfortunately to do so would violate the infallibility precept of God and therefore undo all existence. In this universe anyway.
For some reason God is not around to deal with the situation personally, so one of his highest angels, the voice of God for humans to hear, must deal with it. Here we have more delightful playing with the religious mythos in that this high angel is named Metatron, and is played with great élan by Alan Rickman (Galaxy Quest, Dark Harbor, Die Hard). He has to find the "last scion," or the last person on earth to have a genetic link to Christ (through his sibling) and send her on the Holy Quest to stop the angels from entering the church. To help her two "profits" are sent in the characters of, you guessed it you Kevin Smith fans, Jay and Silent Bob. These two give the movie a strange sense of Bill and Ted meets a modern Quest for the Holy Grail. Also happening along is Rufus, the 13th apostle who was left out of the Bible for being black, played by Chris Rock (Lethal Weapon 4, Beverly Hills Ninja), and a Muse named Serendipity played by Salma Hayek (Desperado, Wild Wild West). The Muse, a supernatural being who inspires others to create, comes from a wholly different mythos but is wonderfully melded into the story. Serendipity decided to give up the Muse job to write her own Hollywood screenplay but seems only able to give ideas to others and not herself, so now supports herself as a stripper. This eclectic lot must somehow stop the angels from reaching the church and getting absolved.
Meanwhile our fallen angels are on their way to New Jersey as well, with the help of a demon named Azrael. They decide to take Judgment into their own hands on the way since Bartleby still has his ability to see into a man's soul and see his sins. They figure they'll do some of God's work and in any case any sins they commit will be forgiven when they get there. This results in quite a bit of violence, which may put off some viewers but was not overly gratuitous. Of course a final confrontation will decide the fate of existence.
Again, I loved how real theology melded with the fantastic. The movie has fun with breaking some of the supposed facts religion holds dear, such as making God a woman in the person of singer Alanis Morrisette. Rufus insists that Jesus is also black, which is not out of the realm of possibility. Certainly Christ would have been darker than Middle Ages European artists portrayed him. And Rufus insists that Jesus still owes him 12 bucks, which is more dubious but pretty funny. There is humor on several levels; from pure scatological gross-out and Teenage Wasteland type humor ranging to some downright highbrow stuff. Performances were generally great, and it's always good to see Kevin Smith playing Silent Bob. I thought the story and the pacing were excellent; though some thought dialogue replaced action at times, I felt the mix was fine. Dogma has also really opened my eyes to the genius of Kevin Smith as well; I think he's getting better with every movie. A great mix of comedy and real thought, Dogma is a movie I'm going to see again.
Columbia steps up to the plate with a very nice anamorphic widescreen transfer once again. Detail was very nice, though a hint soft at times. Colors were very well represented, with great fleshtones and blacks. A slight bit of edge enhancement is the only problem brought in from the digital transfer, but it is barely noticeable and only once in awhile. Overall this is a superb transfer. The two slight flaws I mentioned are barely noticeable. The original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is preserved, though a heavily cropped pan-and-scan is on the other side. Maybe it's just me but I think DVD consumers are a bit more savvy than VHS buyers and should be ready to stop their Pan & Scan habit. Still it's there for the casual buyer who never reads a website like this.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack falls just short of excellence but is pretty good. Expansive use of the front soundstage is accompanied by sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious use of the split surrounds. Bass extension and the whole dynamic range is quite good; music and effects are very distinct and have plenty of punch. The only real flaw, besides panning to the rear surrounds which is only adequate, is dialogue level. I had to boost the center channel several decibels to understand the dialogue. If you don't have that capability then it could be a problem, as volume levels for dialogue make for some very loud passages elsewhere. With that caveat of being able to boost my center channel the soundtrack is very nice overall.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There was quite a controversy about the film, especially early on when Disney owned the rights. It took buying the film back from Disney and having Lions Gate release it to get made. The moral majority types, many of whom had never even seen the film were all up in arms against it. In fact, the beginning of the movie has a disclaimer saying this is only meant to be comedic fantasy and no one should take it the wrong way. They also said God must have a sense of humor since he made the platypus, and then apologized to anyone who was offended by any unintended slight of platypi. Still, there are people who simply can't handle anything that would slight or poke fun at their religion. The church has been notoriously lacking in the sense of humor department. So I make a caveat that some people will be offended by Dogma. I don't believe most people would be or that they should be, but there it is.
As far as the disc goes, my biggest complaint is the fact that it is a bare bones disc; containing only Talent Files, a leaflet of production notes, and the trailer. This isn't a real complaint because we knew ahead of time this was being done just to match day and date release with VHS and a true two-disc special edition is coming in October. View Askew, Kevin Smith's production company, with some great work by Vincent Pereira and J.M. Kenny, who did the great Mallrats disc, is working hard on the supplements to give another spectacular special edition. I know I'll be buying the special edition.
I heartily recommend Dogma as a film to watch. I am less enthusiastic about recommending purchase on the disc, but only because of the upcoming special edition. Only those who aren't fans of tons of great extras should prefer to buy this disc now. Some of you are anxious to see it and are willing to buy both, in which case I say go for it. For the average guy though, I'd recommend renting this one and then buying the special edition in the fall.
The film is found guilty of exposing a few things the Catholic church would probably rather forget, and of being very entertaining in the process. Columbia is acquitted of any liability, as they were candid from the beginning about the existence of the special edition in the making, without any duplicity in trying to get you to buy the barebones version first. For what this disc is, a very fine effort. I have a feeling this fall we'll be talking about the special edition in even more glowing terms.
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