DVD Review: The Christmas Star

I must preface this review (which is probably one of the more surprising choices of films that I’ve ended up writing about on here) by talking about the astonishing power of nostalgia.

I’ve never seen any research done on it, but I find that with most people I talk to over the age of 20, there’s a fond remembrance of the things that we enjoyed as a child. 

For some, it might be the Star Wars films.  For others, it might be the music they listened to when they were little.  Or maybe a favourite holiday destination.  Certainly, it will include their favourite cartoons they watched as a kid.

The amazing thing about this love of nostalgia is that it can completely override any sort of rational judgment on our part about quality.  For instance, somebody posted an episode of Secret Valley on YouTube recently (which they found in their garage on a video that they’d taped 21 years ago) and let me tell you – I was loving every minute of it.  The music, the plots, the terrible acting – it was, on the whole, quite dreadful, but I would have run out and bought a DVD box set of this series if it was available, just because of the nostalgia factor.  (If, by the way, you don’t know what Secret Valley is, then you clearly were either not in the country or not born in the early 80s – my condolences to you.)

The other funny thing about nostalgia is that if you don’t fall in love with something when you’re young, it can be too late to come back to it later in life.  For instance, I never did get to see the Star Wars trilogy as a kid (I was the first-born, so my parents were still trying to work out how many scary monsters and laser guns they should expose me to as a young person – and it had the dreaded PGR rating, second only to the ground-shaking finality of the AO rating, which I still think should have been kept as a rating, because it must have made parent’s jobs so much easier: “No, it’s an AO, you’re not watching it.  Go to bed.”)  So when I finally did get around to seeing Star Wars in my late teens, it was too late by then.  It was a pleasant piece of light entertainment, but nothing to write home about. 

The other one was The Princess Pride, which I still find relentlessly inane, but I know that puts me in a minority . . .

Maybe now that I have kids, I can rediscover all these things.

This long prologue leads me to one of the regular routines of my childhood – Sunday evening with Disney.  I can’t remember when this stopped in Australia, but for what seemed like years, there would an hour-long Disney special on every Sunday evening at 6.30 (was it channel 7?)

The shows were usually made-for-TV or minor Disney movies that they decided to broadcast.  Most of them were movie-length, but serialised across two weeks.  Sometimes, there were cartoon specials (usually for Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Christmas) which featured several old Disney cartoons cobbled together.  Most of them were enjoyable at the time, but quite forgettable.

Except for The Christmas Star, which I still remember fondly to this day.  I can’t remember what year I saw it in – I just found out that it was made in 1986, so it must have been a lot longer ago than even I realised – but it was shown in two parts on the Sunday Disney slot.  We ended up taping it, and must have watched it, I don’t know how many times, because rewatching it this time, I remembered nearly every scene clearly as it played, so it must have been a lot.

The reason I ended up seeing it on DVD, was that I spotted it in a store, and was mentioning to Rachel how much I used to love this film as a kid, and so she ended up buying it secretly for me, just to shut me up.  I was a bit nervous about coming back to it, because one of the problems with returning to nostalgia is that we can see the holes in it that weren’t there the first time around.

I was pleasantly surprised.  It actually held up as well as I remembered it. So I either had exceptionally good taste as a youngster, or I’m being blind to its faults.  Either way, while I haven’t found much on the internet to confirm this, I’d say there must have been somebody in the DVD office who loved this film as much as I did, because there were many, many made-for-TV Disneys which came and went – why has this one been given a new life, 20 years later, on DVD?  And not only that, it has been restored to an amazing level of details.  It looks as if it were made yesterday.

Well, whoever it was in Disney, thank you!

The storyline for this one (sorry that it’s taken so long to get there) is fairly simple, but not one that you see too often in a Christmas movie.  The grey-bearded Horace McNickle (played in a beautifully grumpy manner by Ed Asner) is a prisoner who makes a breakout from prison disguised as Santa Claus and sets out to find the money left over from the robbery that he committed eight years ago.

While hiding from the police, he ends up living in the cellar of a small house in a lower-class part of town, where all the tenants are about to be evicted by their cold-hearted landlord, Mr Sumner (played by Rene Auberjonois, for those of you Deep Space Nine fans).  Two kids that live in the building find “Santa” living in the cellar, and help him in his plots, not realising that they are aiding a criminal . . .

I think what makes this story work so well is two things.  Firstly, the realistic grimness of everyone’s situation makes the Christmas spirit of the thing shine more fully.  In fact, there’s something quite contemporary about a Christmas where parents aren’t sure if they can afford presents for their kids.

So by setting up a situation where not a lot of good stuff is happening, the message of doing good things for others, with no hope of reward, shines through more fully.  I always get moved by seeing acts of generosity and kindness in movies (because there’s not a lot of it) and this film delivers in that respect.

Finally, a word should be said about the soundtrack.  While there is a bit of incidental music, the vast majority of it is Christmas carols and songs.  The director clearly had an ear for music, because all through the film, the carols we know and love – the music which says Christmas to so many of us – is playing.  Sometimes it’s in the score, sometimes it’s on a brass band in the background, sometimes it’s on the radio.  But it’s all there and used magnificently (and sometimes quite poignantly) throughout the film.

So thank you, Rachel, for letting me relive some memories.  And thank you to whoever in Disney greenlighted getting this film up on DVD (after it having not really been shown since the 80s).

4 1/2 out of 5.

One-Year War and Peace 9.10 – Pfuhl the Strategist

Reading for Saturday, 20 December

I had to chuckle at this chapter.  Here Andrei meets Pfuhl the German strategist.  There’s not really anythin I could add here, the chapter is so perfect on its own, but if I could point out my favourite moments, they are:

a) When we have the description of the various nationalities and why they are conceited.  My favourite of these is the French: “The Frenchman is conceited from supposing himself mentally and physically to be inordinately fascinating both to men and to women.”

b) The description of Pfuhl’s love of the grand theory of war and that even a failure “only convinced him of the correctness of his theory”.

You may be thinking that there are an awful lot of people involved in the command of this war, none of whom really seem to care that much about victory of the gravity of the situation.  Sadly, this is not just a novelistic thing, but something that seems to appear in many wars.

One of the problems the Americans (both sides) faced during the American Civil War of 1861-1865 was that when the war started, many commanders and generals were put into place on account of their political standing or how wealthy they were, rather than any military prowess and it caused all sorts of problems.

Oh yeah, and my final thing for today, is that I still think Tolstoy considers the Tsar to be soft, because he just calls for general meetings all day (which he won’t even call councils of war) and doesn’t really make any decisions.

Or does that make him a good commander because he recognises that he can’t influence the whole course of history?

Hmm . . . now I’ve confused myself.

One-Year War and Peace 9.9 – Political Factions

Reading for Friday, December 19

Well, hello everyone!  Merry Christmas to you all!

I have been on holiday the last few days, and I have barely been able to find a moment’s spare time to sit down and read War and Peace, so I apologise again for the long hiatus.  (But maybe you’ve been busy as well?)

I think I’ll just try doing two chapters at a time until I catch up.  I should say, that by my count, there were 363 chapters in my version of War and Peace so I always intended that I was going to utilise the two spare days to take Christmas and New Years off.  (But as you can see, I’m utilising Christmas Day to catch up . . . Ah well . . .)

In this chapter, we have a long and detailed description of the different points of view regarding what should be done by the Russians to defeat the French.  One group says So-And-So should be in charge, another group says we should do nothing, another group says go in all guns blazing, another says the Tsar should lead, another says the Tsar should go back to his palace.

Tolstoy never tells us which point of view he agrees with (possibly the last one?) but there’s a feeling that he’s more enjoying his role now as historian of 1812 (a war of which I’m sure there must have been plenty of historical materials and documents for him to scour when he was writing War and Peace) and is revelling in the level of historical detail which he can cram into his already detailed magnum opus.

But it does serve a purpose – it drives home the multiplicity of motivations and drives, all of which contribute to the flow of history.  And, finally, it ends with the “outburst of patriotism” that followed the Tsar’s returning to Moscow and finally letting the army get on with the job of fighting.  I can’t quite work out whether Tolstoy is being a bit tongue-in-cheek about the value of the Tsar leaving, but I’ll take him at face value on this one.

One-Year War and Peace 9.8 – Family Woes

And we rejoin Andrei again, only to find him in the worst state we’ve seen him yet for the whole book.

He wants to kill Kuragin (or get killed by him – it doesn’t matter as long as there’s an element of revenge in there), the rest of the Bolkonsky family is in a bitter row, and he doesn’t feel any affection for his son.

It’s not looking good.  The most shocking thing for me was that, when confronted by his father (who well and truly sets the tone and is the “elephant in the room” in this house) – rather than blaming his father – he blames Mademoiselle Bourienne.  What’s with that?  I think father and son are fairly similar . . .

Anyway, as with Book 1, Andrei is heading off to war leaving a lot of tension behind . . .

One-Year War and Peace 9.7 – A Genial Supper

And here we have a follow-up to yesterday’s chapter with Balashov being invited to a very genial supper with Napoleon where he spends the evening hearing how great Napoleon is (granted, we are hearing about this supper via the ever-dry sense of humour of Leo Tolstoy).

Napoleon talks about how great he is, sits down for an after-dinner cup of coffee, and then that’s it – that’s the end of the tie between France and Russia.  The war begins.  There’s something mind-blowing in the fact that something as devastating as a war can really begin with something as harmless as an after-dinner cup of coffee.

One-Year War and Peace 9.6 – Napoleon Close Up

Reading for Tuesday 17/12/08

Another day missed!  Sorry!  Anyway, here we really get our first full-blown Tolstoyesque description of Napoleon.  When Balashov gets to meet him, his clothes, his manner are all described.  And the steady escalation in this chapter from good-humoured politeness to ranting and raving is quite entertaining in its own way.  (Probably not if you were Balashov, though.)

My favourite moment, though, would have to be the little quirky one where Balashov knows he’s supposed to deliver the Tsar’s line about “as long as a single enemy under arms remains on Russian soil” and can’t bring himself to do it – knowing that it will send Napoleon into a worse rage.

Did Napoleon really want peace?  I don’t think so.  It comes across pretty clearly in this chapter who started what – and yet philosophically, no one really started anything, because everybody’s little choices brought them to this moment, and there is no turning back the clock.

One-Year War and Peace 9.5 – “As Necessary As Wolves”

In this rather bizarre little chapter in the exploits of Balashov, Alexander’s messenger is brought before Marshal Davoust.

What I find intriguing is Tolstoy’s description of Davoust in relation to Arakcheev.  Now, this is probably might cause a bit of back-flipping here to remember who Arakcheev is – but he was a real-life character who had a cameo appearance with Andrei back in Book 6.  If you remember, Andrei wanted to reform the army, and so he went to see Arakcheev, who had a massive waiting room full of people who were terrified of speaking to him.

Anyway, the point is that Davoust is the French Arakcheev – a thoroughly unpleasant character.  But of these unpleasant characters, Tolstoy says “In the mechanism of the state organism these men are as necessary as wolves in the organism of nature.  And they are always to be found in every government; they always make their appearance and hold their own, incongruous as their presence and their close relations with the head of teh state may appear.”

In other words, in every government, you always find some vicious politician somewhere who no one seems to like, but they’re absolutely essential to the whole thing – I was just wondering whether this means that the Belinda Neals of the world are essential to the political process?  Can you think of other politicians or leaders who have been vastly unpopular but yet keep things going along?

Anyway, after his run-in with the spectacularly unpleasant Davoust, Balashov then finally gets escorted four days later to the very house in Vilna where he first brought news to the Tsar of Napoleon’s arrival.  Again, the irony of war.

It also means that we could have cut out these last few chapters and described it all in a few sentences – but by bringing this to life, the real historical events of the 1812 invasion become as real as the fictional ones.

Also, it means that after several books of comfort dealing with characters we know, Tolstoy is expanding out the literary universe again.  Prepare for more change . . .

One-Year War and Peace 9.4 – The Bizarre Encounter with Murat

In this chapter, Tolstoy reminds us of the often surreal nature of history, with this rather tangential tale of Balashov and his encounter with Napoleon’s brother-in-law Murat.

It’s tangential in that it doesn’t involve any of our main characters, but it’s quite relevant in that the entire fate of Russia waits in the hands of this one man trying to get through to see Napoleon and he’s finding himself either waiting around on the timing of French soldiers who are treating him with the utmost contempt, and then finally having strange conversations with Murat.

There’s a sly sense of humour in this chapter, as Murat tries to distance himself from what is going on, as if it’s not in his hands – and I think the classic line that sums it up is when Murat is recorded as speaking “in the tone in which servants speak who are anxious to remain on friendly terms though their masters have quarrelled.”

War is a crazy time . . .

One-Year War and Peace 9.3 – Completely Unprepared

This chapter reminds me a little bit of Forrest Gump, with history and fiction intertwining beautifully.  Here we have Boris and Helene, both at the same party with the Tsar, when the announcement comes through about the French invasion.  So as well as carrying the story forward for our two fictional characters, we get a glimpse into how completely unprepared the Russians were for this invasion.

I’m still sticking by my theory that Tolstoy believes the Tsar to have been completely incompetent.  He’s known the French threat has been building, and has been trying to distract himself with parties and balls, rather than put something together.

Of course, if you’ve been following the philosophy, the Tsar didn’t really have many options anyway, so the war would have happened regardless of what he chose – I think.  Or have I messed up the philosophy part?

Either way, the French are on their way, the Tsar has written an indignant letter – and war is on its way.

One-Year War and Peace 9.2 – A New-Found Intensity

This chapter, which reads more like an episode out of a history book, talks of Napoleon crossing the river Niemen, with his Polish soldiers.  The horrific story of the Polish soldiers, all keen to do their heroic swim, so they can look good in front of Napoleon, to me, only backs up the influence that one man can, in fact, have on the lives of others.

But anyway . . .

You can also read it from the point of view that it’s quite a ruthless army that is heading to take over Moscow, and that things are going to be a lot more desperate than they were six years ago . . .