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Friday, May 18, 2012

MEMORIAL DAY -- DVD review by porfle

Some war flicks serve up non-stop, blazing battle action for us to pound down popcorn by, while others are dark political nightmares that have us suffering the existential horror of it all.  And then there's MEMORIAL DAY (2011), the kind of war movie that just wants to get inside some soldiers' heads for awhile.

While Staff Sergeant Kyle Vogel (Jonathan Bennett) serves in Iraq, his experiences keep drawing him back to a lazy Memorial Day in 1993 when, as a 13-year-old boy in Minnesota, he found his grandfather's WWII footlocker filled with "souvenirs."  Bud Vogel (James Cromwell) tells Kyle to put it back, but the boy insists on hearing some of the old man's war stories.  Bud makes a deal--three items, three stories, and if Kyle behaves like a man, Bud will talk to him like one.

That special afternoon between Bud and Kyle on the porch, embued with all the golden-hued notalgia of a lemonade commercial, is the heart of MEMORIAL DAY, when the mentally failing old man recalls his precious stories one last time for the boy who is now mature enough to appreciate them.  Kyle's first choice, naturally, is a pistol, but rather than yielding a tale of daring adventure it takes the old man back to one of those days that still haunts him deep in his soul. 
All of the action we see during these flashbacks is peripheral to such emotional trauma, with soldiers such as Bud not only losing beloved comrades but sharing moments of grief and anguish with the enemy as well.  A battle in a Belgian forest in '44 serves mainly to establish the bond between the men involved (along with how Bud happened to get shrapnel from a potato masher in his butt), while another confrontation ends with Bud losing his best friend via an almost anticlimactic final shot. 

Director Samuel Fischer handles the WWII sequences in a more traditional style than the "Saving Private Ryan"/"Band of Brothers" look we expect nowadays.  The latter is used during the present-day Kyle's day-to-day experiences in Anbar Province, Iraq, which are also shown to consist of long periods of dull drudgery and mounting tension punctuated by moments of horror and chaos.  Again, the brief battle scenes are practically beside the point, and one mission to capture a terrorist leader, which is given considerable build-up, is aborted before it begins.

When a shrapnel injury lands him in the hospital, a sympathetic nurse (Emily Fradenburgh) allows Kyle to wax reminiscent himself, his stories often containing parallels to those of his grandfather as he harkens back to that long-ago Memorial Day.  Thus, we learn that a soldier's life is pretty much the same no matter the time or place, with the emotional significance of an event taking precedence over anything else.

Cromwell, who by now could probably play a part like this in his sleep, gives his usual sturdy performance as old Bud, while his son John plays the younger version in flashbacks.  The fact that John looks and sounds so much like his old man, in addition to being a pretty good actor himself, gives these scenes added authenticity.  As the older Kyle, Jonathan Bennett underplays enough to come across as a regular guy. 

The DVD from Image Entertainment is in 1.85:1 widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound.  Extras consist of a commentary from director, producer, and actor John Cromwell, and a very brief behind-the-scenes short.

If you're expecting lots of action, be prepared to spend a leisurely afternoon on the porch with Grandpa during much of MEMORIAL DAY, which lives up to its title in a wistful, contemplative, and melancholy way.  This is the story of everyday soldiers doing a job which, at times, happens to exact an overwhelming emotional toll that stays with them for the rest of their lives.  However, chances are that this well-meaning but ultimately rather bland movie won't affect you nearly that long, because although it does what it sets out to do fairly well, it never comes close to the kind of emotional crescendo that it labors to achieve.

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Anonymous said...

Good review, though this movie is a tear jerker.

Anonymous said...

I think you did a good job reviewing this film, except you must be emotionally fried not to have felt this film. It was definitely a tear jerker.