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Simon Magus   RATING: 8/10
The Nine Lives Of Tomas Katz   RATING: 3/10

casts: Noah Taylor, Stuart Townsend, Rutger Hauer, Tom Fisher, and Ian McNeice

director: Ben Hopkins

185 minutes (15) 1999
widescreen ratio 16:9
Fremantle DVD Region 0 retail

reviews by Andrew Hook
The two movies on this DVD couldn't be more unlike each other, their only link being Ben Hopkins' very specific and assured direction. Whilst The Nine Lives Of Tomas Katz is experimental and surrealist to an extreme, Simon Magus is a much more traditionally filmed tale. However, whilst the storyline is conventional, both magic and religion hold sway within the movie, giving it an underlying sense of mysticism that also pins its heart in unreality.

The movie is set in Silesia in the latter part of the 19th century, as industrialisation represented by the advent of a railroad near a small village threatens to undo the villagers' livelihoods as they are bypassed by the new technology, losing them trade. The solution is to approach the local squire, Count Albrecht (Rutger Hauer), to see if he will sell some land to build a railway station and thus restore prosperity to the region. The problem is that there are two bidders for the land, one from the poor Jewish community, and the other a rich Christian businessman. Albrecht, a poetry writer from the big city who finds himself out of place in the region, entrusts his book of poems to the Jewish bidder, Dovid Bendel (Stuart Townsend), with the proviso that the land is his if he enjoys them.

The faltering Jewish community have barely ten men left to make up a Minyan (the number required to make a formal service), whilst the somewhat larger Christian settlement has held sway over the region for some years. Yet both will diminish if the railway doesn't stop there, a point made implicit by the very impressive opening sequence as large parts of the area become deserted as people leave. And betwixt the two sits the outcast, Simon Magus (Noah Taylor), ostracised from his Jewish elders because he claims that the devil speaks with him and that he has magical powers. As the Christian bidder, Maximillian Hase (Sean McGinley), realises that money alone may not buy the land, he bribes Magus with the prospect of salvation if he can assist in 'persuading' Bendel to withdraw his bid.

The name of Simon Magus is an important one as it derives from accounts by early Christian authors who believed the name to be that of the first heretic. Whilst there is much religious debate throughout the movie, as Simon is enticed towards Christianity with the promise of food (including pork), and is harassed by the Devil himself (Ian Holm), there are also much simpler themes at work here which make the film enjoyable across a wide audience spectrum. The impression is of a society at the cusp of everything - religious toleration, new technology, changing ways, the demise of the simple life - but one which might claw itself back at any moment into barbarity. The end result - through some slow telling, authentic scene setting, and excellent characterisation - is a cumulative and powerful tour de force of all that has gone before, making logical sense from any deceits that were woven.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Noah Taylor plays the possibly possessed halfwit Magus very believably, and the scenes with him on the train track reflect his tortured soul. The two bidders are character-opposites, and can't help but be caricatures because of that, yet still enable our emotions to be raised when they are on screen. Finally, the lynchpin in some ways that anchors the movie, Rutger Hauer gives a sterling performance as the Count who flits from sincerity to boredom and eventually wonders whether he has let circumstances get out of control as he pitches art against religion.

Ben Hopkins' direction is first-rate, and the music and lighting really makes the picture. This movie was co-funded by FilmFour, and the quality of their production is evident throughout. If only there were more British movies with the intelligence and direction along these lines, instead of bandwagon hopping comedies or gun trash!

As well as the two features on this DVD, there is also Hopkins' award-winning early short film, National Achievement Day, which takes a wry look at dysfunctional lives. The director's commentary on the main feature is also well worth a listen.

As stated above, this second film on the DVD couldn't be more different than the other. Experimental in storyline and design, riffing from Ealing comedies, noir movies, and German expressionism, what results is a hodgepodge that I found close to switching off on many an occasion. Glancing at my film notes, the words 'crap' and 'poor' leap off the page. I'm not against experimental films by any means - in fact, I'm more likely to be for them - but what we have here is an art film that believes it has a sense of humour. Unfortunately, it's just not funny.

On the last day of the world a stranger, Tomas Katz (Tom Fisher), emerges from a hole in the ground and catches a cab. As he interacts with various people he takes on their personas, leaving them to drift in his old personality, as though a snake sloughing its skin and passing it on. By the end of the day, the world will have been erased.

The opening section of the film is truly involving and disturbing. When the cabbie asks Katz what he does he replies, "I cut people up to find out where their dreams come from" ... "Come again?" says the cabbie. Yet, once their roles are reversed, it all gets very silly. Any menace is wiped away, and it becomes a tired situation tragic-comedy lurching from one character to another with a shoestring link between the lot of them. The tentative plot being that the astral child is dying, a fact recognised by the blind Inspector of Police (Ian McNeice), who uses a Ouija board to conduct his investigations. Unfortunately, no one really cares.

Obviously shot on a budget, perhaps it's unfair to compare this with the far superior Simon Magus, however the movie has few redeemable qualities and being compared to a better film is one of them. Shot in black and white, the cinematography itself is bland and doesn't make the best of the medium. The dialogue is poor throughout, and the performances can only be described as fair to middling. The best thing about this part of the DVD is the director's commentary, where Tom Fisher joins him and they make sarcastic comments about their own work. Unfortunately you have to watch the entire film again to hear it. I, for one, couldn't be bothered.

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