Once in a blue moon, a direct-to-video film comes along that exceeds its low-budget origins and genuinely surprises with an original, engaging story that hits all the right notes. It's really one of the joys of walking into a movie completely blind aside from the plot's basic outline. Spend enough time rummaging through all the garbage and sooner or later, you just might strike gold, making the effort prior to that moment very well worth it. 'Memorial Day,' from first-time director Samuel Fischer and writer Marc Conklin, is one such gem, a movie that really deserves a much wider audience.
It's a war drama about combat veterans that could've easily spiraled into some kind of gung-ho military propaganda fluff piece. But instead, the movie avoids politics and never expresses some kind of moral culpability. This isn't about a patriotic call to arms and it doesn't make any attempts to justify a military presence in Iraq. And better still, the filmmakers don't make comparisons between going to war against Nazi Germany and the expensive search for al-Qaeda. They could have if they really wanted to, although the results would likely be upsetting, if not disturbing. The fact that they don't, however, is commendable and actually serves as yet another reason for watching this surprisingly excellent motion picture.
The script digs for something deeper and emotionally resonant, focusing much of its attention on the influential relationship of a WWII veteran and his grandson. Broken into three periods of time, the film opens with SSGT. Kyle Vogel (Jonathan Bennett) in the heat of combat and receiving a minor shrapnel injury. While recuperating, the doctor (Emily Fradenburgh) asks about his obsessive habit of collecting souvenirs, such as the bomb fragment that was lodged in his leg. He seems reluctant at first, acting like so many soldiers do preferring to keep their thoughts to themselves, but eventually he gives in and shares a memory of his grandfather on the day he found grandpa's footlocker.
The film's strongest and best moments, by far, are the scenes between 13-year-old Kyle (Jackson Bond) and his "Opa," Bud (James Cromwell), sitting on the porch Memorial Day weekend simply talking about the items in the trunk. Of course, much of it is largely due to Cromwell's presence and excellent performance, which also elevates the overall movie immensely. As the surly, grouchy grandpa who doesn't want to talk about his memories as a paratrooper lieutenant during WWII, Cromwell brings a great deal of weight and gravity to the story. His son, John Cromwell, is tasked with playing the younger Bud in flashback sequences. But sadly, he doesn't quite deliver the same emotional impact, especially during one critical scene meant to bring the entire narrative to full fruition.
Although it takes a while for it to be made clear, not only to audiences but to the older future Kyle as well, both men's reluctance to share their unique experiences during combat is what ultimately brings them closer together on that one fateful day. It's this wonderful, heartwarming tale of connection between grandfather and grandson which lifts the film from the usual expectations of cheap direct-to-video releases and into an inspiring motion picture that terrifically honors the men and women of our armed services. In spite of its limited production value, 'Memorial Day' also comes with some amazing battle sequences which eill make viewers forget its low-budget origins and simply enjoy the story. This is one film which genuinely deserves a much wider audience.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Image Entertainment brings 'Memorial Day' on Blu-ray with a Region A locked, BD25 disc inside a blue eco-vortex keepcase. At startup, viewers are taken straight to the main menu with full-motion clips and music.
Shot entirely in HD with the help of the Red One digital cameras, the 1080p/VC-1 encode looks every bit as one would expect from such a system. The picture lacks anything remotely close to film and ultimately feels sterilized and artificial, like the sort of material commonly used on demo discs to test the accuracy of one's display. In that regard, at least I can say everything's running smooth on my system. On the other hand, it's not really something anyone wants to sit through for over a 100 minutes.
Nevertheless, if we overlook this one negligible nitpick, which admittedly is a matter of personal preference, 'Memorial Day' debuts on Blu-ray with an astounding high-def presentation that some can easily use as demo material. Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the transfer is razor-sharp with crystal clear clarity into the far distance. Facial complexions appear healthy with splendid lifelike textures which expose every pore, wrinkle and bead of sweat. The architecture of buildings and the desert landscapes are distinct, and you can make out every thread, stitching and detail on the uniforms.
Colors are accurate and vibrant with lush, energetic primaries, giving the picture an attractive lively appeal. Contrast is spot-on with crisp, brilliant whites, except for a couple minor moments where highlights come off a tad too hot. Black levels are inky rich, although not always perfect, with excellent detailing in the shadows and during nighttime sequences, providing the image with a terrific three-dimensional feel throughout. Altogether, it's an excellent video presentation.
Like the video transfer, the audio also comes with a few moments of artificiality which draws some attention to itself. It's not so excessive that it becomes a distraction, but it's worth noting.
But for the most part, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack makes an excellent high-rez presentation that wonderfully pulls viewers into the drama. Discrete effects are brilliantly integrated into the background, nicely enhancing the soundfield, and pans between channels is fluid and often convincing. Conversations on the porch are filled with the chirpings of birds flying above while combat sequences come with bullets and debris spreading all around, generating a wonderfully immersive aural experience. Vocals remain clear and precise amid the loud commotion, and imaging is terrifically expansive with a sharply detailed mid-range. The low-end is deeply responsive and palpable, providing gunshots with a realistic punch and explosions with a great deal of force.
In the end, the lossless mix is not one to test the limits of your system, but it will give it a nice, healthy workout nonetheless.
Image commemorates 'Memorial Day' with a rather disappointing collection of bonus material.
Premiering as a direct-to-video release, 'Memorial Day' exceeds its low-budget origins with a powerfully engaging story about the experiences and psychological effects of combat. With a great performance from James Cromwell at its center, the film is a wonderful war drama deserving of a wider audience. The Blu-ray arrives with near-reference video, notwithstanding its sterilized digital appearance, and an excellent audio presentation. Supplements are disappointing and weak, but due to an outstanding plot, the overall package is still recommended for anyone willing to take a chance on it.