Blu-Ray Review: STARZ Originals ‘Camelot,’ ‘Spartacus: Gods of the Arena’

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CHICAGO – One of the most popular opinions among modern audiences is the notion that television shows have become consistently better than films. This is partly because many of the year’s best movies are relegated to urban art houses, while shows like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” are available on small screens nationwide. Yet I’d argue that there’s just as much derivative dreck on TV as there is in mainstream multiplexes.

Two recent shows on STARZ illustrate this principal in exquisite fashion. Both “Camelot” and “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena” are the latest rehashes of ancient tales that have nothing new to bring to the table, besides a smattering of gore and nudity to better portray the “reality” of their oft-romanticized subject matter (while simultaneously boosting ratings). Neither show emerges as anything more than an inferior imitation of past hit films. One show is a complete rip-off, while the other registers as HBO-lite. Blu-Ray Rating: 2.5/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 2.5/5.0

The best thing that can be said about “Camelot” is that creators Michael Hirst and Chris Chibnall are at least trying to do something slightly different. Their reboot of King Arthur’s coming-of-age tale features a bald, moody and profoundly fallible Merlin played by Joseph Fiennes, who seems poised to out-ham the other hairless hothead played by his brother in “Harry Potter.” He swoops into the life of slender blonde Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower of “Twilight” fame) and urges him to earn his preordained destiny as ruler of Camelot. While Arthur has no prior knowledge of his royal bloodline, his sister Morgan (Eva Green) has had her eyes on the crown for a good long while. This causes an epic family feud mirrored in several other STARZ shows, which often focus on ruthless characters willing to squash their siblings in their rise to the top.

Green can chill blood merely by flashing her scarily large and hypnotically gorgeous eyes, and her sublime scenery-chewing alone makes this show worth a look. She easily outshines Bower, who looks like the long-lost Hanson brother and doesn’t quite have the gravitas necessary for such a larger-than-life role. The scripts are awash in instantly familiar clichés, while the random bits of nudity feel jarringly tacked on, such as when Guinevere (Tamsin Egerton) makes her grand entrance by emerging naked from the water along a beach (like Bo Derek in “10” sans clothes). Easily the show’s best performance is delivered by veteran character actress Sinéad Cusack as Morgan’s devoted caregiver Sybil. Her scenes in the first season finale pack the most sizable emotional punch.

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Sept. 13, 2011.
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Sept. 13, 2011.
Photo credit: Anchor Bay Entertainment

While the first season of “Camelot” also proved to be its last, the “Spartacus” franchise on STARZ threatens to continue into eternity. When Andy Whitfield, the titular star of “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the show’s producers decided to postpone the planned second season while slapping together a wholly unnecessary prequel. The critical acclaim heaped upon the Spartacus-less “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena” seems entirely inexplicable, since the show is not only an uninspired retread of the previous season but a shameless knockoff of “Gladiator” as regurgitated by “300.” Nearly every scene devolves into a slow-motion sexual encounter or duel to the death that are lensed not for their dramatic impact but their sensationalistic detail. Dustin Clare plays cocky Spartacus stand-in Gannicus, the first champion gladiator to represent the House of Batiatus (John Hannah).

Co-stars Lucy Lawless and Jaime Murray steal a few scenes together, while Manu Bennett brings some genuine pathos to the role of gladiator trainee Crixus, but the actors’ efforts are in vain. Digital blood spurts all over the screen during the monumentally phony fight scenes, which are as viscerally numbing as any gruesome video game designed for mindless butchering. The one key beheading at the end of “Camelot” is more affecting and authentic than any of the excessive bloodletting on display in “Spartacus.” Even the script appears to have been dreamed up at a frat party: “The crowd will come in great geysers!” and “One moistens at the thought…” are typical examples of the generally laughable dialogue, which sounds like it belongs in a porno (and in a way, it already is).

Camelot was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Sept. 13, 2011.
Camelot was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Sept. 13, 2011.
Photo credit: Anchor Bay Entertainment

“Camelot” and “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena” are both presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio) and include a series of insubstantial featurettes stuffed with over-enthused sound bites. The three-disc “Camelot” Blu-Ray set includes behind-the-scenes footage of the cast and crew shooting on location in County Wicklow, Ireland, the same locale used for Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart.” Fiennes describes his character as a cross between “Obi Wan Kenobi and Donald Rumsfeld,” while saying that it was the show’s intention to subvert past portrayals of Merlin by stripping him of his fatherly guidance. Bower reveals that he and Egerton are in fact childhood friends, but doesn’t disclose whether this made their multiple intimate love scenes a tad awkward (their giggly banter on the 5-minute blooper reel is rather charming). Six character profiles do little to get under the skin of their respective subjects, though Claire Forlani does a fine job of succinctly explaining the “void of understanding” that exists between Igraine and Morgan. There are also effects breakdowns for three key sequences in the show, including the epic retrieval of the sword from the stone, which required a stuntman to scale an actual waterfall.

Most of the extras on “Spartacus” are fairly self-explanatory, such as the pun-filled music video entitled, “10 Easy Steps to Dismemberment.” Creator Steven S. DeKnight freely admits that his show was filmed on green screens in “a very ‘300’ kind of way.” Property manager Robert Bavin and key stunt/fight coordinator Allan Poppleton appear briefly to discuss the show’s lethal weaponry and bone-crunching choreography. Footage of the actors’ intense boot camp is featured in a breakdown of the climactic Battle Royale sequence. Lawless fans will appreciate her clowning in the blooper reel (where she snaps back in character with formidable ease) and during a comedic visit to her trailer. Production designer Iain Aitken talks about the process of altering sets from the first season for this series, while the producers claim that they were sold on Clare after watching his performance as the psychotic Chris Flannery in the Australian series, “Underbelly.” The longest featurette chronicles the show’s meticulous post-production, as assistant editor Ilya Klarich is seen inserting animated blood effects into the fight scenes. DeKnight makes some feeble attempts at likening the show’s subject matter to modern events and praises STARZ for allowing him the freedom to explore uncompromising subject matter in order to better serve the story. He truly should thank his lucky STARZ for granting him such a transparent excuse to satisfy he and his fan base’s seemingly bottomless desire for soft-core exploitation.

‘Camelot’ was released by Anchor Bay Entertainment and stars Eva Green, Jamie Campbell Bower, Joseph Fiennes, Tamsin Egerton, Claire Forlani, Peter Mooney and Philip Winchester. It was created by Michael Hirst and Chris Chibnall. It was released on Sept. 13, 2011. It is rated TV-MA.

‘Spartacus: Gods of the Arena’ is released by Anchor Bay Entertainment and stars Dustin Clare, John Hannah, Lucy Lawless, Peter Mensah, Manu Bennett, Nick Tarabay and Craig Walsh Wrightson. It was created by Steven S. DeKnight. It was released on Sept. 13, 2011. It is rated TV-MA. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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