So, as I write this, these two high-def formats are still a little ways off from their second birthdays, and already we have four (five, if you're not scared off by Japanese imports) of Kevin Smith's movies on HD DVD and Blu-ray. Not a bad batting average, especially for a director who doesn't fit the $350 million computer-generated-wankfest mold that people usually think of when it comes to these shiny little five inch discs, although anyone suffering through this review hopefully knows better than that. Yeah, lower budgeted comedies can still look pretty incredible in high-def, and Dogma lends itself even more to these next-gen formats than any of Smith's other movies; it's been almost ten years since cameras first rolled on Dogma, and nearly a full decade later, it's still his most ambitious film.
The Catholic Church is in a slump, and as part of Madison Avenue's attempt at giving the church's somber, dour image a more marketable spit-'n-polish, they've inadvertently opened up a Biblical loophole that'd let two fallen angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) ascend back into Heaven and snuff out existence as we know it. Wouldn't be much of a problem for the Almighty if He weren't already indisposed -- the whole Catholicism Wow! thing landed while He was on his monthly skeeball sabbatical -- so the forces of Heaven turn to The Last Scion: Bethany Sloane (Linda Fiorentino). How exactly does an embittered counselor at an abortion clinic keep a retired Angel of Death and a chatty Grigori from strolling into a church in New Jersey and ushering in the end of all things? Well...she's kinda stuck figuring that out as she trudges her way towards the Garden State, but Bethany does have help: Metatron (Alan Rickman), a cynical angel grudgingly standing in as the voice of God, Rufus (Chris Rock), the thirteenth apostle snipped out of the Bible 'cause he's black, Serendipity (Salma Hayek), a former muse who tried to strike out on her own in Hollywood but turned to stripping after catching a nasty case of writer's block, and two prophets, Jay and Silent Bob (and if I have to sandwich their names between parentheses, you're reading the wrong review).
I kinda flipped over Dogma when I first caught it on DVD, but watching it again, it dawned on me that maybe I was a little too giddy when I hammered out that four star review seven long years ago. I like Dogma, but it's a lot more okay than I remember it being, and it'd probably rank near the bottom of the Kevin Smith movies I'd be likely to grab off the shelf.
Dogma's a top-heavy flick, and that quick summary a couple paragraphs up doesn't begin to touch on just how dense the storytelling really is. While Smith's other movies often let the plot serve as a backdrop for his characters and dialogue, Dogma's more intensely concentrated on the nuts and bolts of the story, and that's both one of Dogma's greatest strengths as well as its biggest stumbling block. The premise as a whole is really clever, built around the skeleton of a kinda traditional good guys/bad guys road trip flick and steering it towards something that feels pretty inventive and new. While an awful lot of religious-themed movies barely nick the surface of Christian scripture, Dogma hinges on points that only someone who's earnestly studied Catholicism would be able to incorporate into a screenplay like this.
The downside is that although there's enough exposition to make all these many plot points clear, it leaves an awful lot of the dialogue sounding stilted and clunky. I mean, names and terms like "plenary indulgence", "Golgotha", "Metatron", and "Grigori" don't exactly roll off the tongue. They'd be tough for any actor to rattle off convincingly, but Chris Rock and Salma Hayek have a particularly tough time with it, no matter how instantly likeable they might be. The drive for exposition can push the comedy to the sidelines; Dogma's a funny flick, but even with Smith's sparklingly vulgar wit present and accounted for, it's not the unrelenting barrage that so many of his other movies have served up. The pacing also sputters and stutters throughout, and although this is a movie with a particularly large scope, I still felt every last minute of its two hour-plus runtime.
Still, there's a lot to like about Dogma, especially its ensemble cast. Alan Rickman steals every scene he's in as Metatron, an angel whose millenia of playing the Voice of God has left him worn down and sneering with contempt at mankind's general direction. This is probably the best use of Jason Mewes outside of any flick with "Clerks" somewhere in the title; he gets just about every single laugh in the movie, from explaining why he happened to be hanging outside an abortion clinic (the chicks who go there have gotta put out, right?) to off-the-cuff nods to Miramax Oscar bait and John Hughes' teen flicks. I also really liked Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, fresh off Good Will Hunting, who nail that bickering married couple vibe between these two neutered angels exiled to Wisconsin. George Carlin, Janeane Garofalo, and Alanis Morissette chime in with small but memorable supporting parts as well.
And not that you haven't read this in every single Dogma write-up over the past nine years and change, but the controversy swirling around the movie is pretty much wholly undeserved. There's definitely some satire, sure, but Smith is mostly poking fun at the church and the sour misdirection of faith rather than taking potshots at Christianity itself. It's a defense of religion in quite a lot of ways rather than an snide, smirking attack, and I'd be kinda curious to see how its protesters would've responded if they'd put down the poster boards and magic markers and actually bothered to give the movie a look.
It's nice to see Kevin Smith stretch his arms and try something different -- aside from its heavier emphasis on the plot, Dogma might be the closest he ever comes to making an action flick -- but this movie's a bit of a misfire. It's funny and clever enough to recommend, especially to Smith's legions of loyal fans (and, yeah, I consider myself one of 'em), but Dogma isn't exactly hovering near the top of my list. Not great, but still Recommended.
Video: I was really impressed by how great Dogma turned out on Blu-ray. The vividly colorful, immaculately detailed scope image is a dramatic improvement over the kinda fuzzy DVDs from a while back, and the Blu-ray disc looks like it's been struck from a much newer master. There aren't any signs of speckling or wear anywhere throughout the movie's two hour-plus runtime, and the AVC encode hovers at a high enough bitrate that no compression hiccups ever have a chance to sneak in. Dogma's photography is sharp and smooth, although there are a few stretches where shadow detail looks a bit murky. I'm sure that's just a factor of the movie's low-ish budget, and really, I don't have any gripes at all.
Audio: Dogma packs on two lossless TrueHD soundtracks -- one in English and the other dubbed in French -- and the movie sports the sort of sparkling sound design that really takes advantage. Dogma's bolstered by an especially meaty low-end, thanks to flickering flames, Stygian-flavored street hockey checks, thumpin' hip-hop, and nekkid dead guys falling out of the sky, to rattle off a few. Ambiance is remarkably strong throughout, and the Stygian triplets, the poop-stained Golgothan, and infamous butchers-slash-angels of death wreak enough havoc to keep the surrounds rockin' and action zipping from channel to channel.
Dogma boasts a really expansive dynamic range, and there's not a stutter or a flicker of distortion anywhere in here. In fact, the audio is so clear that there are times when it's almost distracting. Take Loki and Bartleby's introduction, f'r instance; the clarity is pitch-perfect, but the recording is so flawless that it's detached from the visuals, sounding more like a handful of actors speaking into $5,000 condenser mics in a decked-out studio than a walk-and-talk through a bustling airport. That's a pretty minor concern, though, and it really only glaringly creeps into that one sequence. Otherwise, Dogma sounds much better than I would ever have expected, and I'm very glad to see that Sony opted to give it the lossless treatment on Blu-ray.
Subtitles are offered up in French, Spanish, and English (traditional and SDH).
Extras: This Blu-ray disc carries over pretty much everything from the two disc DVD release. The only things missing in action are the theatrical trailer, the "my opinion" bits with Mrs. Harriet Wise that played over the DVD's menus, and the 'video hijinks' inserts from the cast-'n-crew audio commentary. Since Dogma fits snugly on a single disc in high-def, the packaging is slimmer this time around too, and the special edition DVD's booklet with several pages of production notes got axed.
There aren't any new extras -- maybe that'll change when Dogma's tenth anniversary rolls around -- but everything else is present and accounted for. Because all of it's carried over from a seven year old DVD, it kinda goes without saying that the extras are in standard def only. Might also be worth noting that the documentary "Judge Not: In Defense of Dogma" still didn't make the cut, so completists who haven't already shelled out for the Vulgar DVD will need to toss that other View Askew flick onto their Netflix accounts to see it.
Kevin Smith, producer Scott Mosier, and View Askew historian Vincent Pereira piled into the recording booth twice to record Dogma's audio commentaries, both of which are pretty heavily bleeped up to smear away any mentions of Disney or Miramax. They're joined in the first of 'em by Ben Affleck, Jason Lee, and Jason Mewes, and this one's more along the lines of what you'd usually expect from a View Askew track. Quippy, self-deprecating, and tearing along at an inhumanly steady clip, the six of them run through everything from off-camera Gwyneth to impassioned defenses of the movie and Smith's understated visual style to Danish killer elevator movies to Linda Fiorentino shunning everyone to Affleck whipping out impressions of Salma Hayek and Denzel Washington to who was getting laid during the shoot. It's a hell of a lot of fun, but the View Askew muckity-mucks realized that they didn't really talk about the movie all that much, so Smith, Mosier, and Pereira gave it another shot on their own.
The second commentary is much more heavily oriented around the business and technical aspects of filmmaking: why they opted to shoot on Super 35 for Smith's first scope film, struggling with the Mooby slaughter in the wake of Columbine, rattling off the slews and slews of other actors considered for the movie, the slightly uncomfortable atmosphere filming the day after Affleck and Damon took home their Oscars, a schedule that was constantly upended to accommodate the cast as they came and went, the agonizing process of editing the movie while [BLEEP!] and the marketeers at [BLEEP!] were constantly pushing for the runtime to be slashed dramatically, nasty budgetary and scheduling overruns, and an explanation why the ending is so clean-scrubbed. It's completely different territory than the breezy first track, but like pretty much every commentary Smith sits in on, both of these tracks are absolutely essential listens.
There are sixteen deleted and extended scenes, and after adding in the introductions with Kevin Smith and his family, Vincent Pereira, Scott Mosier, and Jason Mewes, they run a feature-length 97 minutes in total. The bulk of 'em are longer versions of what already made it into the movie rather than new, fully fleshed-out scenes. Quite a few characters get lengthier introductions and some expository chatter, including an explanation of Bethany's crisis of faith and the backstory behind the Stygian triplets and Serendipity. This extra footage spends a lot more time in the dingy strip club, building up to a completely outta left field and less-funny-than-it-sounds bit with Jay and Silent Bob belting out the Fat Albert theme. A couple of other scenes worth noting include another Shit Monster-slash-Stygian triplets brawl and a rant about Star Wars-as-theocracy. Kevin Smith makes sure to note that the version of Dogma on this disc is his director's cut, and really, pretty much of all of this was better left trimmed out. Still worth a look, especially for the intros.
The outtake reel is pretty solid, piling together thirteen minutes' worth of rambling improvs, bumping into boom mics, uncontrollable cackling, mugging to the camera, and Mosier greeting a red shirt with a dead dog. Also included are three sprawling sets of storyboards, running through the Mooby corporate boardroom assault and a couple of other attack sequences, along with a quick plug for Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash. There isn't a theatrical trailer for Dogma anywhere on here, but high-def plugs for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Company, and the first season set of Damages round out the extras.
Conclusion: Dogma veers away from the sort of movie that usually springs to mind when I think of Kevin Smith, focusing more on its fairly complex storytelling than characters and dialogue. It's a movie I like but find more uneven than just about anything else Smith has done, and Dogma wouldn't be my first pick for someone who's not already a frothing-at-the-mouth fanboy. For the View Askew-faithful, though, Dogma looks and sounds pretty much perfect on Blu-ray, and just about all of the extras from the two-disc special edition from a few years back have been carried over. Not Smith's best, but still Recommended.
The images scattered around this review are culled from the 2001 DVD release and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.