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Memphis Flyer Oh, God

Kevin Smith grapples with Christianity in "Dogma."

By Chris Herrington

NOVEMBER 15, 1999:  A disclaimer shown at the beginning of Dogma, the latest film from Kevin Smith, the director of Clerks and Chasing Amy, states that the film is "a work of comedic fantasy, not to be taken seriously," but despite that little bit of cop-out/humility, Dogma is actually a very serious film. Despite its potty (mouth) humor, Dogma takes religious belief more seriously than any film since Robert Duvall's The Apostle. Discussions of faith in this talky film are so earnest that it comes off as a Gen X equivalent of an Ingmar Bergman feature.

Dogma is a religious parable spiked with Smith's by-now trademark chattiness and some loopy, inspired ensemble casting. Everybody's favorite poster boys for male-bonding, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are Loki and Bartleby, two fallen angels exiled to Wisconsin ("worse than hell") who think they can make it back to the big house in the sky due to a loophole in church dogma. The problem is that their re-entry will cause the disintegration of human existence. The only person who can stop them is Bethany (film-noir babe Linda Fiorentino), a Catholic woman undergoing a crisis of faith. Along the way we meet Rufus (Chris Rock), the jive-talking 13th Apostle ("A black man can steal your stereo, but he can't be your savior," Rufus says of humans who refuse to believe that Jesus was black), and Alanis Morissette as a (thankfully) silent God.

Like Clerks and Chasing Amy, Dogma demonstrates Smith's penchant for mixing frat-house humor with casual profundity. A scene where a "shit demon" rises from a bar toilet to attack our heroes and an angel (played by Salma Hayek) takes the time to explain the biblical justification for such a creature serves as a microcosm of Dogma's odd blend of theology and scatology.

Clerks and Chasing Amy are films that I love. Dogma is a film I merely admire. This difference has a lot to do with the fact that sexuality (Chasing Amy) and service industry anomie (Clerks) are more meaningful subjects to me than the theological concerns of Dogma. For you, of course, that may not be the case, and your reaction to Dogma may vary accordingly.

But there are also formal reasons why Dogma isn't quite as successful as Clerks and Chasing Amy. Dogma is not as compact as those two films, and however talented a writer Smith may be, his visual skills haven't developed to the point where he can handle material with as epic a feel as Dogma. Structure-wise, Dogma more closely resembles Mallrats, the genial disaster that Smith made in between Clerks and Chasing Amy.

Like Mallrats, only more so, Dogma has the visual quality of a comic book, which is probably no accident coming from renowned comics-hound Smith. In Dogma, the battle of Good and Evil over man's soul is dramatized in a flat, exaggerated visual style that works with the screenplay's episodic structure to produce this comic book-like quality. Dogma is a bit messy, and certainly not Smith's best, but is still a significant work from someone on the verge of becoming a major director. -- Chris Herrington

I'm for any movie that has monkey flashbacks complete with subtitles. But this is just one tiny element of the wonderfully daft fantasy comedy Being John Malkovich. Giving away much more would spoil it, so the bare bones will have to do.

John Cusack stars as Craig Schwartz, a puppeteer with so little going in his life that even his wife Lotte's (Cameron Diaz) pet parrot bosses him around. The only time he has control is when he's working with his puppets, but even then the applause is taped. Live reaction is often met with a punch to the face.

So, with the puppet thing going nowhere, Craig takes an office job as a file clerk. The office is no ordinary office; its set-up is unique and oddball characters abound. But there are two things about his new job that have got Craig engaged. One of them is Maxine (Catherine Keener), a coworker and all-around bitch who doesn't want anything to do with Craig and frequently and mockingly tells him so. The other is a portal that Craig happens upon one day. He opens a door, crawls through a tunnel, and with a flash of light, he is John Malkovich for a full 15 minutes before being spit out outside of the New Jersey Turnpike.

The portal provides for Craig a way to finally, truly be somebody else, and a somebody who's somebody. More importantly it provides an inroad to Maxine, who has agreed to go partners with him on a business in which they let anybody be John Malkovich for $200 a pop. Complicating things is Craig's wife, who also wants to be John Malkovich all the time. That's where the monkey comes in.

Directed by Spike Jonze (best known for his music videos) and written by Charlie Kaufman (a newcomer), Being John Malkovich is consistently silly. The actors goof on themselves (particularly one who has a cameo), and the performances are all good. The joke here is that the joke is on everybody, and it's a zinger. -- Susan Ellis

When a man reaches "that place" in a relationship with a woman, there are two options: marriage or a run for the hills. But throw in a $100 million inheritance with the stipulation that the man get married by his 30th birthday (which, conveniently, is a little more than 24 hours away) and what the audience gets is The Bachelor, a sap story for hopeless romantics. The key word here is hopeless.

Chris O'Donnell's character, Jimmie Shannon, begins by launching into a chauvinistic soliloquy about the "mustanghood" of all bachelors and their perpetual hunt for "sweet grasses" (i.e. women) and proceeds to equate bouquet-tossing at weddings with a death sentence for the boyfriend of the bouquet catcher. When Jimmie fears his relationship with Anne (Renee Zellweger) can go no further without an engagement, his proposal of "you win" barely beats the option of "shit or get off the pot."

It's only after Jimmie is faced with losing his grandfather's $100 million inheritance that a fire is lit under his butt to get the "I do's" over with. Jimmie is utterly surprised that Anne keeps saying no and then leaves town. In an attempt to redeem poor Jimmie, the filmmakers threw in a bit about him having to marry in order to save more than 200 people from losing their jobs in his family's company (like the money is just a bonus for his "good deed"). As heartbroken as he is, the knight in a dusty limo spends the rest of the movie botching proposals to ex-girlfriends, until he finally comes to an "Oh my God" revelation that his only desire is to marry Anne.

The only saving graces of the Gary Sinyor-directed film are the adorable Chris O'Donnell and Renee Zellweger. Zellweger's hair is fabulous in all its spun-gold, curling glory, and her wardrobe of evening dresses and casual wear are enviable. The 1,000 women in wedding gowns chasing O'Donnell's character through the streets of San Francisco is worth a gaping mouth and a few chuckles. -- Alysson Cook

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