DVD 4/14/09: The Reader, Splinter, Road to the Big Leagues, Shuttle, Exosquad S1

The Reader (R, 2008, Weinstein Company)
If one could assemble an Oscar-nominated film using a paint-by-numbers construction kit, the result probably would look a little bit like “The Reader.” Things begin promisingly and simply enough with the unlikely relationship between a sick teenager (David Kross and young Michael Berg) and the older woman (Kate Winslet) who finds him vomiting in a rain-soaked alley and cleans him up before sending him home. As that relationship grows, the meaning of the film’s title is revealed, and with it comes an unspoken but patently obvious twist-in-waiting that would appear to dictate where things go next. But then, the other colors and numbers start to pile up, and “The Reader” becomes a period piece, a slice of historical context, a multi-decade epic and perhaps an allegory or two as well. Nothing about the film stands out in any negative way: Kross, Ralph Fiennes (as Michael’s older self) and especially Winslet’s performances are the stuff of Academy voter dreams, and “The Reader” has that sweeping epic quality to complement a handful of equally favorable sweeping emotional crescendos. But the whims of the Academy do not matter when it comes to your entertainment, and the increasingly, oppressively heavy nature of the film — to say nothing of its somewhat remarkable inability to mine a historical tragedy for deeper meaning in its own world — doesn’t necessarily play as favorably on a lazy evening as it does on an awards mantle. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
Extras: Deleted scenes, five behind-the-scenes features.

Splinter (R, 2008, Magnet/Magnolia)
Familiar devices? Yes, “Splinter” has familiar devices. There’s the random character whose only purpose is to die at the hands of the film’s chief threat before the opening credits even arrive. There are the two not-necessarily-likeable protagonists (Paulo Costanzo, Jill Wagner) who picked this weekend of all weekends to solidify their inability to go camping in the middle of nowhere, as well as the unsavory couple (Shea Whigham, Rachel Kerbs) that antagonizes couple A but then must reconsider once that thing from the first scene comes along to turn everything upside down. There’s also more where that came from, as “Splinter” lifts trick upon trick out of the horror movie playbook, right up to and including the traditional big finish and tease at the end. What “Splinter” also has, though, is one of the more ridiculous (in a completely complimentary way) monsters to enter the horror movie ring in some time. The title provides a clue, but it’s best not to spoil any further, because discovering just what a visual mess our heroes have on their hands is the easily the film’s biggest treat. The gradual reveal also does much to mollify whatever grievance one might have with the derivative nature of the rest of the story, which at least benefits from a low-budget sensibility and some partially (if not completely) inventive solutions to the problem at hand. How many films can use the phrase, “It’s OK, we’re cutting your arm off” as a form of straight-faced reassurance? Only this one.
Extras: Director/cast commentary, director/crew commentary, seven behind-the-scenes features, art gallery.

Road to the Big Leagues (NR, 2008, Indiepix)
Here’s a story that won’t surprise anybody: As baseball’s global appeal expands its reach, major league dreams inevitably follow close behind. This is acutely apparent in the Dominican Republic, where the likes of David Ortiz and Vladimir Guerrero, among a growing list of others, have traded impoverished childhoods for million-dollar careers in the big leagues and uncomfortably high levels of hero worship in their homeland. “Road to the Big Leagues” checks in on both Ortiz and Guerrero during their respective offseason existences while also tracking the progress of one major league hopeful and touching on everything from the alternatives to baseball success and the fatal damage a faulty birth certificate can wreak on one’s aspirations. It’s all fascinating stuff, and it’s a shame “Leagues” feels a need, for whatever reason, to cram it all into a mere 53 minutes of space. That’s the main (and, really, only) knock against the film, which would only benefit from more time to spread around. To its credit, it at least takes full advantage of the time it has. It’s not necessarily a good tactic to leave people wanting more to the degree this one does, but it beats overstaying your welcome any day.
Extras: Director interview, extended and new footage.

Shuttle (R, 2008, Magnet/Magnolia)
How much is $15 worth to you? For Mel (Peyton List) and Jules (Cameron Goodman), it’s the difference between taking one airport shuttle over the other. For us, it’s the difference between “Shuttle” being a pointless movie about a routine ride home and what it actually is, which is anything but. Yes, there’s trouble on that airport shuttle, and for a while, “Shuttle” appears to be just another horror movie about a maniac bent on tormenting and destroying people for reasons that never go explained. But even when “Shuttle” is at its most banal and unpromising, it’s just creepy and curious enough to merit engagement. And once it turns a corner and heads into its second half, that engagement pays off. “Shuttle” doesn’t merely wish to explain its madness; it expounds wildly on it, and even the twist you see coming pays off thanks to the amount of energy the film and its creepy characters invest into it. The complete disclosure of “Shuttle’s” madness makes for one of the more unsettling gotchas to grace the horror genre this year, and even the most hardened fans of the genre will be pressed not to feel just a little bit creeped out by the sequence that brings it home.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, casting footage.

Exosquad: Season 1 (NR, 1993, Universal)
Your typical action-oriented Saturday morning cartoon goes a little something like this: Bad guys hatch scheme to destroy good guys and/or whatever they stand for, good guys find out just in time, bad guys imperil good guys, good guys pull off a comeback victory, bad guys escape, and everything starts over again the next week. Not so with “Exosquad,” which not only hatches a rather sophisticated plot about a race created by humans taking over the human race, but uses a serial format to stretch the multithreaded story over the entire season. The best part? It does all this high-concept stuff on the strength of the same hokey dialogue and B-level voice acting that so explicitly exemplifies the Saturday Morning cartoon. The sides can’t help but clash, but that’s part of the entertainment. Additionally, the overarching storyline and serial format are sufficiently satisfying enough that rolling your eyes and anticipating what happens next need not be mutually exclusive.
Contents: 13 episodes, no extras. Hopefully Universal will follow up with the comparatively monstrous second season, which concludes the saga over a whopping 39 additional episodes.