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Starz's Spartacus on DVD: Blood and Sand (Season 1) Gods of the Arena (Prequel Miniseries) Vengeance (Season 2)

"Spartacus: Gods of the Arena" The Complete Collection DVD Review

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena: The Complete Collection DVD cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Spartacus: Gods of the Arena (2011)
Show & DVD Details

Creator: Steven S. DeKnight / Executive Producers: Rob Tapert, Sam Raimi, Joshua Donen, Steven S. DeKnight

Directors: Rick Jacobson, Jesse Warn, Michael Hurst, Brendan Maher, John Fawcett / Writers: Steven S. DeKnight, Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon, Aaron Helbing, Todd Helbing, Seamus Kevin Fahey, Misha Green, Brent Fletcher

Regular Cast: John Hannah (Quintus Lentulus Batiatus), Manu Bennett (Crixus), Peter Mensah (Oenomaus), Dustin Clare (Gannicus), Jaime Murray (Gaia), Nick E. Tarabay (Ashur), Marisa Ramirez (Melitta), Lucy Lawless (Lucretia)

Recurring Characters: Jeffrey Thomas (Titus Lentulus Batiatus), Craig Walsh-Wrightson (Solonius), Stephen Lovatt (Tullius), Gareth Williams (Vettius), Lesley-Ann Brandt (Naevia), Antonio Te Maioha (Barca), Shane Rangi (Dagan), Peter Feeney (Quintilius Varis), Jessica Grace Smith (Diona), Temuera Morrison (Doctore), Jason Hood (Cossutius), Raycho Vasilev (Gnaeus), Ioane King (Rhaskos), Josef Brown (Auctus), Steven A. Davis (Indus), David Austin (Medicus), Vincent Roxburgh (Duratius)

Guest Stars: David E. Woodley (Petronius), Stephen Ure (Slave Trader), Mike Lowe (Masked Roman), Andrew Laing (Sextus), Joel Oliver (Caburus), Andy Whitfield (voice of Spartacus - uncredited)

Running Time: 331 Minutes (6 episodes) / Rating: Not Rated (TV-MA on air)

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen / Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Mono 2.0 (Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish; Not Closed Captioned
Extras Subtitled in English / Series Airdates: January 21, 2011 - February 25, 2011
DVD Release Date: September 13, 2011 / Suggested Retail Price: $39.98
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9s) / Embossed Hardcover Book in Clear Plastic Slipcover
Also available on Blu-ray Disc ($49.99 SRP)

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Despite the title, Spartacus is nowhere to be found in "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena". Starz's six-episode prequel to its hit 2010 series
"Spartacus: Blood and Sand" shows life at the ludus to which the famed slave revolt leader will be sold and make his name. Quintus Lentulus Batiatus (John Hannah), the ludus' short, fiery dominus is rising to the power he wields in "Blood and Sand." His wife, the domina Lucretia ("Xena: Warrior Princess" star Lucy Lawless), is less ornate and much more faithful than previously seen.

Their gladiator school in Capua is populated with some of the characters you'll recall from Season 1, somewhat curiously, considering the speed with which they were killed off there. Though that design robs the show of the fatal unpredictability that marked "Blood and Sand", it also gives this series Revenge of the Sith-type appeal. It's interesting to resurrect these bold personalities and place them where you imagined they were a few years earlier.

Oenomaus (Peter Mensah) and Gannicus (Dustin Clare) are great friends with a similar taste in women. Friends Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) and Gaia (Jaime Murray) turn the House of Batiatus into a place of pleasure.

At the start, scarred African Oenomaus (Peter Mensah) is not yet the ludus' doctore (instructor). He is married to Lucretia's top slave girl Melitta (Marisa Ramirez) and eager to return to fighting. Syrian interpreter Ashur (Nick E. Tarabay) is neither crippled nor a bookie. Crixus (Manu Bennett), the Gaul who will one day be the institution's champion, is shaggy-haired and bearded when he is carelessly acquired in the first episode. The most prominent new character is the house's undisciplined current champion Gannicus (Dustin Clare), who regularly displays his prowess and also forms one side of a central love triangle.

Joining the fray in the first episode as extended houseguest is the young widow Gaia (Jaime Murray), who serves a similar purpose to "Blood and Sand"'s Ilithyia, but enjoys greater physical intimacy with Lucretia and Batiatus. Also newly introduced, Batiatus' father Titus (Jeffrey Thomas) turns up in the third episode and immediately starts exerting authority. Meanwhile, the earring-wearing Solonius (Craig Walsh Wrightson) is around, not yet as enemy but as trusted advisor. He occasionally serves as an intermediary between Batiatus and the series' villains, rival ludus owners Tullius (Stephen Lovatt) and young Vettius (Gareth Williams).

Surprisingly, "Blood and Sand" slave girl Naevia (Lesley-Ann Brandt) maintains a rather peripheral presence as one of two new virgins numbering among Lucretia's entourage. (It is little wonder that Brandt left the series, requiring the part to be recast for the forthcoming second season.)

Father-son discord between Batiatus (John Hannah) and Titus (Jeffrey Thomas) permeates three of the six "Gods of the Arena" episodes. A Crixus (Manu Bennett) messier looking than we're used to develops champion aspirations in "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena."

Returning to this franchise nearly a year since my last exposure, it took some adjusting to the extreme violence and profanity.
While I'm no connoisseur of premium cable programming, "Blood and Sand" ranked as the raciest TV program I'd ever seen. "Gods of the Arena" seems to even exceed it, wasting no time before serving up beheadings and CGI blood splatters. Profanity, including both c-words and nearly every variation of the f-word, frequently flies, hardly a minute passing without a swear. Every actress in the core cast is nude by the end of the first episode. The first two installments add opium use and urination on the severely wounded to the already copious arsenals of hedonism and debasement.

Like its predecessor, "Gods of the Arena" is uninhibited in its depictions of pagan debauchery, especially at its start. Life in this Ancient Rome appears to revolve around two things: sex and violence, which are cross-cut with each other here more than once. The writers are constantly inventing creative outlets for those bodily exertions, leaving little to the imagination. No deviation goes untapped: gays, lesbians, threesomes, voyeurs, masturbation, suckling. No sex act is too much for the series to simulate, with each gender supplying some full frontal nudity. And then there are the unreal amounts of blood that spurt from slit throats and fatal torso stabs.

The graphic content is probably the biggest obstacle to this show winning over the average person. Even if such a viewer finds the historical context compelling, the show is dirty enough for them to qualify it at best as a "guilty pleasure." But, some pleasure is derived by this and not only for those seeking skin and gore.

One certainly wonders about the historical accuracy, which seems suspect a lot of the time. But then how much research on First Century B.C. life can the makers of a violent, sexed-up Starz Original Series be expected to conduct? The language -- with its curious arrangements and overuse of the word "would" -- seems to do justice to our best translations of Latin, the setting's native language. Nonetheless, the mystery remains regarding how small bowls of porridge give the gladiators' big muscles and the energy to endure hours of fighting in the sun every day. And who knew that nearly a century before Jesus was born there was microphony invisible to the human eye that allowed a crowd of hundreds to hear arena declarations seemingly spoken at a normal human volume?!

Bullet time effects afford us a striking slow motion look at the gladiator fight moves. Ashur (Nick E. Tarabay) is able-bodied and accompanied by fellow Syrian friend Dagan (Shane Rangi), for whom he translates.

"Gods of the Arena" retains its forebear's balance of combat and characters, ensuring they are always complimentary. Storylines don't exist to set up the next orgy or brutal death match. The series is surprisingly adept at developing personalities and returning to them as fit. It also helps that every returning character here is quite a bit more sympathetic than they were in "Blood and Sand", as we gain insight to their subsequent callousness.

Another source of improvement lies in the production values of this international collaboration, funded in America and shot in New Zealand. As on any television series, the visual effects of "Blood and Sand" were lacking. This time around, low-budget CGI isn't as heavily relied upon to create locations out of thin air. You still get computer-generated crowds and some production design fakery, but it's more sightly. And again, the blood is added in post-production (unconvincingly, partly to make the horrific violence easier to swallow). Perhaps the shorter shoot was granted a larger budget, which might explain some striking slow-motion bullet time effects applied primarily to fighting (and at least once to sexual play).

"Gods of the Arena" was conceived to keep the "Spartacus" franchise active while star Andy Whitfield received treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. While the producers wisely waited for Whitfield to recover and a reported remission seemed to paved the way for his return, the cancer resurfaced, making a recasting inevitable. The follow-up to "Blood and Sand", titled "Spartacus: Vengeance", will premiere on Starz in January, with Australian actor Liam McIntyre taking over the titular role.

In the meantime, if you haven't already, you can check out "Gods of the Arena" on DVD and Blu-ray, when Anchor Bay Entertainment releases each 2-disc set on September 13th (along with the one and only season of "Camelot"). Read on for synopses of the 50-minute-plus episodes and our review of the DVD...

Even blindfolded, champion gladiator Gannicus (Dustin Clare) is a force to reckon with in this marketplace duel. A blonde-wigged Gaia (Jaime Murray) sees to it that the desires of Quintilius Varis (Peter Feeney) are met in "Missio."

Disc 1

1. Past Transgressions (51:21) (Originally aired January 21, 2011)
Lucretia catches up with Gaia and Batiatus buys Crixus. A big marketplace duel -- with a twist -- is held and its result leads to violence.

2. Missio (54:04) (Originally aired January 28, 2011)
While Batiatus plots his revenge, Gaia and Lucretia lead his house's wooing of Quintilius Varis' (Peter Feeney) gladiatorial sponsorship.

3. Paterfamilias (54:55) (Originally aired February 4, 2011)
To everyone's chagrin, Batiatus' father makes an unexpected return to the house, where he undermines his son's leadership.

4. Beneath the Mask (51:56) (Originally aired February 11, 2011)
Batiatus keeps his father out of the way, while Gaia and Lucretia see to influential men's many desires.

Cracks start to form in the marriage of newly-appointed doctore Oenomaus (Peter Mensah) and Lucretia's top slave girl Melitta (Marisa Ramirez). The series concludes with an all-out primus, conducted within a ring of fire in Capua's new arena.

Disc 2

5. Reckoning (55:51) (Originally aired February 18, 2011)
While awaiting a major decision from Batiatus, Titus oversees a contest to rank the gladiators. This episode concludes with one incident resulting in two major character deaths.

6. The Bitter End (1:03:18) (Originally aired February 25, 2011)
The dead are laid to rest and Batiatus pursues retribution. Then, the much-anticipated games open Tullius' new arena, concluding with a primus held within a ring of fire.

VIDEO and AUDIO

"Gods of the Arena" receives a film-like presentation now standard for contemporary television, appearing in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. Both aspects are exceptional. The picture is crystal-clear and sharp, barely identifiable as less than high definition. The sound is remarkably strong as well, boasting a powerful and appropriate use of surround channels. The odd bit of non-English dialogue is translated in burned-in subtitles, while English SDH and Spanish subtitles are gratefully attached to the rest of the show (and the former extending to the bonus features).

"Spartacus" creator/writer/executive producer Steven DeKnight talks "Gods of the Arena" in this promotional Starz featurette. Brick Tamland's weapon of choice is among those profiled in "Weapons of Mass Disruption." Cast members get physical (physical!) at boot camp in "Anatomy of a Scene."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

With the exception of optional one-minute recaps that catch you up on the preceding episode(s) for all but the series opener
(which includes a recap of "Blood and Sand"), the bonus features are all found on Disc 2, under the heading "Featurettes."

First and longest is "Starz Studios: Gods of the Arena" (14:35), a promotional but good preview/overview of the series that complements show clips with comments from creator Steven S. DeKnight, the cast, and select crew members. They discuss the new characters and the motivation for the prequel.

In "Weapons of Mass Disruption" (2:53), prop master Rob Bavin pays notice to some of the period weapons used in the show's fights, which are shown in use along with some stats. "Battle Royale: Anatomy of a Scene" (5:58) looks at the explosive series climax, with footage of boot camp and fight choreography.

Lucy Lawless reveals her playful side in this tongue-in-cheek tagalong. If you're a fan of puns and violence, you're gonna love "10 Easy Steps to Dismemberment." Blood splattering against a green screen gets added to a fight scene in "Post Production."

The tongue-in-cheek, partly staged "On Set with Lucy Lawless" (6:30) amusingly tags along with the actress on a typical day of filming. Shown arriving, getting made up, passing downtime by throwing Velcro balls at a wall dart board, and passionately kissing her co-star, Lawless comes across as very playful.

"10 Easy Steps to Dismemberment" (2:14) shows ten of the season's most debilitating sword slices accompanied by pun and fun fact graphics. It's curious (and mildly troubling) that breasts were blurred in a previous bonus feature yet this piece includes all the series' most violent moments unedited.

"Post Production: The Final Execution" (7:17) shows us what goes into preparing the series for airing: editing, then adding blood and other visual effects, Foley work, and ADR. It offers nice clear looks at common but fascinating processes taken for granted. "Enter the Arena: Production Design" (3:38) briefly considers the sets, focusing primarily on the Capua arena, constructed to be filled with hundreds of extras, as opposed to the less energizing green screen used on "Blood and Sand."

Jessica Grace Smith feels very Spartan in Diona's slave girl costume. John Hannah talks about the prequel series at Comic-Con 2010's Spartacus panel, while Viva Bianca looks on. In the blooper reel, John Hannah displays a sense of humor that his character lacks.

"Dressed to Kill" (6:28) talks costume design, with actors weighing in on their characters' clothing.

"Convention Panel" (5:55) shows us some relevant excerpts from 2010 Comic-Con's "Spartacus" panel, as Steven DeKnight, John Hannon, and Lucy Lawless answer questions pertaining to the prequel series. Seen but not heard: "Blood and Sand"'s Viva Bianca.

The extras conclude with "Arena Bloopers" (5:13), most of which take place outside of the arena. The goofs, often observed with profanity, are less entertaining than those of most other gag reels.

Privileged leading ladies Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) and Gaia (Jaime Miller) share the screen on Disc 2's main menu montage. More than half of the series comprises Disc One, which allows you to watch episodes with or without recaps.

Disc One opens with trailers for "Spartacus: Blood and Sand", "Boss", "Camelot", and the US remake "Torchwood: Miracle Day." Though most of these are not menu-accessible, the "Blood and Sand" promo can be viewed individually from Disc 2's "Also on DVD" menu, along with trailers for the "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena" Facebook game, The King's Speech, and "Sons of Anarchy": Season 3 (on whose Fox DVD you can expect to find a "Spartacus" promo).

Though Anchor Bay typically puts DVD and Blu-ray on a level playing field, they have not done so here. The "Gods of the Arena" Blu-ray offers extended episodes, cast and crew audio commentaries on all six shows, and a 3D presentation of the "Ring of Fire" battle sequence. Those exclusives sound pretty substantial and might mean more to you than high-definition's usual picture and sound gains.

The main menus rotate through character stills and blood-soaked clips, resembling those of "Blood and Sand" and the somewhat comparable end credits sequences, whose rock score plays.

"Gods of the Arena" is packaged like "Blood and Sand", only more compact. The two discs slip into pockets on successive sturdy sheets of what looks and feels like a lavishly-illustrated 4-page hardcover book. The book, slightly wider than a standard DVD case and with an embossed front cover, is topped by a plastic sleeve that is barren save for "The Complete Collection" banner. An insert promotes the online Spartacus and Camelot games; this DVD will net you an exclusive in-game item in both. Another one advertises "Spartacus: Vengeance", "Boss", and other Starz original programming.

A bruised Quintus Lentulus Batiatus (John Hannah) looks out over his ludus, while Gaia (Jaime Miller) and Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) stand back.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

"Spartacus: Gods of the Arena" does not depart too much from the design of "Blood and Sand." Like its predecessor, this is smutty and gory, but it's too strongly written to dismiss on those traits. The titular hero and his story are hardly missed. With only six episodes, there is no time or need for disposable diversions. Those with strong constitutions will find a good amount of interesting drama here. If you liked "Blood and Sand", you'll like this. If you didn't, you probably won't.

Anchor Bay's Complete Collection DVD delivers an outstanding feature presentation and a very good hour of bonus features (though none of the Blu-ray's commentaries and extended episodes). Amazon's steep preorder discount reasonably places the set near the price of a new movie's DVD. While there is a lot of last season's television coming to disc over the next few weeks, it's safe to say, for better or worse, that there is nothing else quite like "Spartacus."

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Reviewed August 28, 2011.



Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2011 Starz Originals, DeKnight Productions, Tapert Donen Raimi, and Anchor Bay Entertainment.
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