"PASSING JUDGMENT," ACCORDING to the amusing printed prologue at the start of Kevin Smith's Dogma, "is for God and God only (this includes film critics...just kidding)." A joke it may have been, although, among the half-dozen or so high-profile American features premiered this year at the Cannes Film Festival, none was screened under more purgatorial circumstances than Smith's off-color Catholic satire. Held by invitation only, with admittance further subject not only to prompt RSVP but final approval from beleaguered publicists put in charge of checking critics' badges (and clout?) at the door, the off-site, pre-festival Dogma preview was masterminded with characteristic PR brilliance by Miramax Films' co-chairman Harvey Weinstein--who went on to conduct an "impromptu" press conference in the middle of the street after the movie ended.
Only Priest and Kids in 1995 have given Weinstein and his brother Bob a bigger headache than Dogma--or, rather, a greater opportunity to turn controversy into free advertising. The siblings recently shelled out ten million dollars to purchase Smith's vulgar work of theology from Miramax's parent company, Disney, whose execs evidently didn't laugh much at the movie's comic depictions of faith as highly debatable and God as a woman (Alanis Morrisette)--not to mention the scene in which two villainous angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) lay violent waste to a distinctly Disney-like boardroom. And what's this critic's judgment? you ask. Well, having appreciated only Smith's much-maligned Mallrats up to now (and that one mainly on account of the genius comic actor Jason Lee), I've got to hand it to the politically incorrect young auteur for converting this nonbeliever to his faith. In brief, Dogma is bold, smartly written, well staged, and thoroughly entertaining: Call it Smith's holy cross between his beloved Star Wars and The Last Temptation of Christ.
Alas, not all Yankee filmmakers fared so well. John Sayles delivered the ludicrously contrived Limbo (opening here on June 11), an ensemble melodrama whose title more accurately describes the state of Sayles's career these days. And Steven Soderbergh and Jim Jarmusch disappointed in similar fashion with, respectively, The Limey and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, an admittedly stylish pair of revisionist men-with-guns thrillers whose brilliant lead performances (by Terence Stamp in Limey and Forest Whitaker in Dog) failed to transcend the woeful familiarity of the material.
Far more effective were Tim Robbins's galvanizing re-creation of the mid-'30s-era Federal Theater Project, Cradle Will Rock, a film whose chilling final shot perfectly clinches its polemical take on art and politics; and Spike Lee's vivid and intense Summer of Sam (due out July 2), whose most provocative aspect is the director's choice to use the Son of Sam serial-killer story merely as a foil for an extremely sexy, Saturday Night Fever-style depiction of the Big Apple during the sweltering boogie nights of '77.
But the strongest American film by a wide margin was David Lynch's surprisingly sensitive and indelible character study The Straight Story. As its title suggests, the film finds the commercially floundering master of abrasive surreality playing it straight with the true story of a stubborn Midwestern codger's trek by riding-mower across two states to visit the ailing brother he hasn't spoken with in a decade. Suffused with death but also enlivened by the determination of the old protagonist (Richard Farnsworth) to bring his life to a fitting close, it's essentially a twilight Western on the order of Unforgiven, except that the pale rider here mounts a snail-paced John Deere instead of a stallion.
Come next March (mark my words), The Straight Story will be a front-runner to win Oscars. But more important, there may not be a more impressively spare or emotionally involving American movie all year--and this from, of all people, the director of Lost Highway.