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Review of SHARK WEEK: SHARK ‘N’ AWE COLLECTION (DVD)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Possibly
2015-16, 1355 min. (32 episodes), Color
Documentary
Lionsgate
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Teaser/trailer
No online purchase link available

Sharks are to the Discovery Channel what Mickey Mouse is to Walt Disney Studios. And every year the cable network celebrates their viewers’ fascination with all things shark with a special televised Shark Week that has all the hoopla of a Super Bowl. This past year’s theme was “Shark ‘n’ Awe,” and you can pick up the Shark Week: Shark ‘n’ Awe Collection on DVD now—but only at Walmart and only in-store, no online sales.

What you’ll get in this six-disc, 32-episode collection is the usual blend of episodes: some of them documentaries about scientific studies (including one, pictured, where scientists and shark experts devised a way to accurately measure sharks underwater), some “in search of” adventures, some of them attempts to capture certain shark behaviors on film for the first time, some spotlighting acrobatic aerial attacks, others chronicling an increase in shark attacks worldwide, others habitat-centered, and a bunch of them dealing with Great White Sharks, whose popularity skyrocketed with the summer 1975 release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. As clichéd as it sounds, there’s literally something here for everyone, and tastes will vary. I found the Mythbusters episode to be the most boring of the bunch, but that won’t be the case for everyone.

I mostly enjoyed the scientific studies, many of them focused on the tagging of sharks so they can be monitored via satellite. Such episodes were largely pure research-based, but one of them sought to pinpoint the movement of enormous Great Whites along beaches in order to alert officials to keep human-shark contact at a minimum when they’re in the area—kind of like a sophisticated cowbell. The most interesting of these may have been “Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba,” because it involved a collaboration between Cuban and U.S. shark scientists working frantically during the limited window that both governments had given them.

But the daredevil episodes were also pretty engaging, including ones where shark chasers experimented with new underwater cages and methods of goading the sharks to strike so they can study their behavior. And there’s a train wreck factor to episodes where shark attack victims are interviewed . . . or we see them go back into the water again because they’re as addicted to sharks as many viewers.

I could have done without the clip shows with their teasers, because the networks already run so many sequences over again when they return from commercial breaks that it can get a little old. Though some might want to start by watching an episode like “Sharktacular 2016” to get some idea of which episodes they want to watch first, I would imagine that most fans would just pop these in one disc at a time and watch them from beginning to end.

Best way to watch? Rig up a backyard screen and use a projector. Invite the neighbors over to a pool party where everyone floats in innertubes as you run through the most harrowing episodes!

Some episodes—like “Blue Serengeti” with its limited shark footage—may disappoint, but for sheer volume, you can’t beat this set if you’re a shark lover (or fearer). Below are the episode titles, separated according to discs:

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SEASONS (2015) (DVD)

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seasonsGrade: B+/B
Entire family: No
2015, 96 min., Color
Music Box Films
Rated PG for thematic elements and related images
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: French Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

Some people watch nature documentaries to learn about animals: their names, diets, habits, range, and habitats. But if it’s detailed knowledge you seek, you won’t find it in Seasons, a 2015 nature film from directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud (Winged Migration, Disney’s Oceans). Seasons is more of an art-house film than it is an informational documentary, a lyric pro-environmental political statement rather than matter-of-factual nature guide.

“The Golden Age of the forest is over,” a voiceover announces, and it doesn’t require much reading between the lines to understand that humans are responsible for the decline . . . and possible eventual extinction of the deep forest and all its inhabitants, who keep getting pushed more and more into unfamiliar, less hospitable habitats.

Seasons is a film that relies more on nature than narration to tell its story, and that’s good—since a French-language voiceover with English subtitles can be daunting for young viewers. Then again, given some of the footage, we’re probably talking about a film that’s suitable for age 10 and older anyway.

Since some animals are pursued and killed by predators—albeit in a manner that shows the least amount of graphic violence possible—you never really know which ones will survive the chase seasonsscreen2and which ones won’t. It might traumatize horse lovers, for example, to see a feral herd chased by a pack of wolves and one horse cornered, especially since later we see how close those same wolves come to the perimeter of a human campground at night. Lovers of all things cute and cuddly will hold their collective breath as a Eurasian lynx tries to catch and eat the bounciest, slipperiest rodent on the planet, and cringe or avert their eyes when an owl swoops in on a cute hedgehog after the little guy gives away his position in the dark by chuffing in an attempt to dislodge a mosquito from his face. It’s the small things that sometimes matter most, and the two Jacques capture plenty of engrossing footage of such moments—some of which I haven’t seen before.

I’ve seen a ton of baby birds being fed by their moms, but with big spiders and recognizable insects? Not so much. I’ve seen plenty of birds still in the nest flapping their wings, but when different species are all shown doing the same thing, it starts to make sense that they’re trying to master “lift off” before they attempt their first flight. Though shots of the wolfpack and feral boars are pretty impressive, the best shots are actually the subtlest. In fact, this film’s strength is probably the sheer number of frames that are so artistic that they would make for one terrific nature calendar or series of blown-up photographic prints. In fall, for example, we’ve all seen leaves drop en masse, but how often do we get a ground-level shot of one leaf landing on the head of a tiny frog? And see that little guy’s reaction?

seasonsscreen1If your child is a nature lover, there’s a lot of great footage here to appreciate, though it does come as a shock to see humans enter this forest documentary around the 54-minute mark and then pop up several times afterwards. What’s more, the humans aren’t contemporary—they’re at first prehistoric, then time fast-forwarding takes us through the middle ages as well. Count me among those who prefer the silence of the first hour of film—no professorial voiceover, no barrage of facts, no spoken narrative, no attempt to make political statements via juxtaposition of images, just immersive footage of nature for viewers to absorb and interpret on their own. Watching this first hour reminded me of the cathedral-like silence of the forest when cross-country skiing and the only sound is the gentle swoosh of movement.

Which is to say, the first part of the film is superior to the rest, even if the political message is as subtly filmed as the predator kills. But like the deer whose head bobs and who we can hear bleating before it disappears behind a snowy ridge, the message is clear. It’s somewhat reassuring to know that nothing was staged so that animals were put in jeopardy and that “no animals were harmed” during the making of the movie. But while the lyric first portion is the film’s chief strength, the downside is that if you see an animal—an interesting bird diving in and out of a stream, say— and you wonder what it is, this film doesn’t tell you. You have to look it up on your own. Some parents will think that’s not a bad idea. Why force-feed data all the time? Let children look up the things that interest them the most. Just remember that if they are so inclined, look up European animals, as Seasons was filmed in France, Poland, and Norway.

THE EAGLE HUNTRESS (Blu-ray)

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eaglehuntresscoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes, if reading age
2016, 87 min., Color
Sony Pictures Classics
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Kazakh DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

Like most 13-year-old girls, Aisholpan likes to paint her nails and hang out with friends. Though she enjoys school and wants to be one of the best students, like a typical teenager she also has a dream that’s more far-reaching.

But Aisholpan Nurgaiv is far from typical. She was born into a family of Kazakh nomads, who break down their tents and relocate based on the time of year, as 30 percent of the population does. She and her family live in the most isolated part of one of the most remote countries in the world—Mongolia—where the terrain is rugged and school is so far away that the children must stay in dormitories during the week, only returning home on the weekends. That leaves plenty of time for hanging out with friends . . . and dreaming.

eaglehuntressscreen1If your children aren’t averse to watching documentaries with subtitles, I can’t think of a better one for family movie night than The Eagle Huntress, a G-rated inspirational film that has a lot going for it: exotic setting, gorgeous cinematography, a likable teenage protagonist, a special father-daughter bond, and a natural dramatic arc that’s the result of Aisholpan’s very specific dream. She wants to become a golden eagle hunter like her father and grandfather, and his father and grandfather, and their fathers and grandfathers. It’s an all-male party she’s trying to crash, but what makes this film heartwarming is that she has the support and encouragement of her family. Elders in the golden eagle hunting community appear on camera to express their displeasure, but that’s not enough to stop Aisholpan or her father, Rys, who takes pride in training her, or her grandfather, who gives her a blessing.

So what is an eagle hunter? There’s both a practical and a traditional/ceremonial side to it. Eagle hunters train a 15-pound golden eagle to hunt foxes during the winter months so the family can use the furs for clothing. To hunt foxes in this manner requires long horseback rides and climbs into the remote mountain areas. It requires great stamina and the ability to withstand icy conditions and temperatures of -40 degrees F. Even getting an eaglet to train is dangerous business, as we see when Aisholpan is captured on camera obtaining hers. But Eagle hunting is also a proud tradition and a celebration of a way of life, and every year eagle hunters gather to compete for the championship. So really, this film has a familiar training-for-the-big-event structure that we see in sports films, only the competition involves eagles. Call it a Mongolian rodeo.

Director Otto Bell and his skeleton crew (and equally skeletal budget) do a wonderful job of capturing life as it’s lived in the remote Altai Mountains and also telling Aisholpan’s story. It may be a documentary, but it’s a dramatic documentary, and it doesn’t end when the competition ends. It ends when Aisholpan meets all the challenges of an eagle hunter head-on—and that includes riding off with her father to try to get her first fox. And since the filmmakers use a Red Epic HD camera, drone, and small POV camera to capture her journey, the production values are as rich as the landscape and subject matter.

eaglehuntressscreen2I said this was an inspirational film, and it is. The temptation would be to call it a film about women’s empowerment, but I agree with Aisholpan and her father. It’s not about men and women. It’s about a person doing what he or she was meant to do, about rising to the challenge, about finding the strength to accomplish what some say is impossible. Yes, it’s about Aisholpan’s dream, but it’s also about good parenting—of being supportive and patient and instructive in ways that uplift and encourage.

The Eagle Huntress is a feel-good movie, whether you’re observing children in a remote school in Mongolia or watching some amazing footage of young Aisholpan as she uses her hand like a cobra to hypnotize a young eaglet before she wraps it in a blanket to take from its nest. If your family likes Animal Planet shows, this film will probably be of interest just because of the main focus on the bond that handlers form with their eagles, who spend a good percent of their lives in the same house as the family. That in itself is pretty amazing to see.

Now, convincing jaded teens to watch a documentary like this might be as much of a challenge as Aisholpan faced, because American children gravitate toward fiction. But it’s really an unobtrusive documentary. Though Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) narrates, the voiceover isn’t constant. Director Bell trusts his subjects to tell the story, with narration used to fill in gaps. My sense is that the best age group for this documentary will be those whose dreams are still being shaped—children in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades—in part because children always like to watch stories of those who are older than they are.

ANTARCTICA: ICE AND SKY (DVD)

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antarcticaiceandskycoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes, but….
2015, 89 min., Color/B&W
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: French/English Dolby Digital 5.1 w/subtitles
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Claude Lorius is a glaciologist. Over a 60-year career he has participated in more than 20 polar expeditions—not only to study glaciers and glacial movement, but also to drill deep down into their near-timeless cores to analyze the ice from different time periods. What they reveal is fascinating, and one of the film’s memorable moments comes when we’re taken into an archive of core-drill ice samples all stacked in rows on shelves according to samples dated by their air bubbles—some of them going back 800,000 years. Lorius began his study of glaciers in 1956 as a 23-year-old man, but as early as 1965 his research was telling him something disturbing. Long before the polar caps began to melt, Lorius was predicting that they would because of the appearance of so-called greenhouse gasses in the ice samples he was taking, and the way those gasses altered the composition of the ice.

There’s no denying that the work Lorius does is fascinating science, unless you’re a U.S. politician who denounces anything that gets in the way antarcticaiceandskyscreen2of the economy. But it’s not very compelling as drama. Antarctica: Ice and Sky, a film by Luc Jacquet that closed the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, is a treatise on global warming that’s frankly dull in spots. The dialogue is overwritten and often stilted, and there aren’t enough shots of Antarctica in HD—with far too much of the film relying on grainier archival footage from earlier expeditions. What Lorius and others do may be fascinating as scientific research, but so much of that research is repetitive and the progress so glacial itself that there isn’t anything close to a dramatic structure to be found here.

I found myself liking the “making of” feature almost as much as the film itself. That one man would dedicate his life to the study of glaciers under such extreme conditions all but boggles the mind—almost as much as the idea director Jacquet had to tell the story of Lorius’s research and dedication by taking him back to the place he loves. That’s right: taking a frail, 83-year-old man to the Antarctic again, where the temperatures are the coldest on earth. The lowest temperature recorded at Vostok Station, the base camp where a good deal of the film was shot, was -128.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The altitude alone—12,800 feet—is enough to tax younger men, let alone an octogenarian.

Seeing Lorius in the present-day talking about his work is inspirational. There is much to admire in the man, and what the vintage footage does and antarcticaiceandskyscreen1does well is to show details of life as scientists live it in extreme isolation while working under extreme conditions. It’s a rare glimpse into everyday life that this film provides, and that’s a big plus. Another plus is that the film has a social conscience. It pays proper tribute to a man who has dedicated himself to studying glaciers and sharing his results with a world that too often denies science when it gets in the way of business. This film is recommended for families with children who are interested in becoming scientists, and for those lawmakers who seem to think that they know more than someone who’s spent 60 years doing meticulous and documented scientific research.

But Antarctica: Ice and Sky is not recommended for those who enjoy travel and place documentaries—though there are some amazing shots of night sky. Nor is it for those who enjoy nature films and hope to see plenty of the pole’s famed penguins. Though Jacquet also directed March of the Penguins, and though penguins do make a few appearances, Antarctica: Ice and Sky is mostly about the pursuit of science under the most horrible conditions imaginable. It’s a film about a man and his work and others who share his passion and his commitment to research. As such, it’s worth watching, but the man himself is more compelling than this film. If you are concerned about climate change (one reason why, one supposes, current female researchers protested Trump the day after his inauguration), Antarctica: Ice and Sky does a good job of explaining and illustrating how scientists are able to draw their conclusions. And if you aren’t? Then you might as well rent Frozen. In the future, animation might be the only way you’ll see a landscape like this.

2016 WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS: CHICAGO CUBS (Blu-ray combo)

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cubscoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes
2016, 90 min., Color
Shout! Factory
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Every year, Major League Baseball comes out with a World Series Champions clip-show for fans to relive the series highlights, and this year it should appeal to an even bigger audience than usual. It features the two teams that had gone the longest without a title: the Cleveland Indians of Major League fame and the Chicago Cubs, the lovable losers from the Windy City’s North Side who play in their “ivy-covered burial ground,” as singer-songwriter Steve Goodman (“Go Cubs Go”) joked in a song titled “The Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.”

Goodman, whose ashes are reportedly buried under home plate, never lived to see the biggest win in Chicago sports history, and neither did a lot of fans. The Cubs last played in a World Series in 1945 and last won a world series in 1908, while the Cleveland Indians haven’t won it all since 1948. This documentary makes clear how generational being a Cubs or Indians fan has been, and the impact a win would have on either city. You couldn’t have written a better script than to have the two teams with the longest droughts squaring off against each other and needing seven games for the winner to finally emerge. The Cubs, who led the majors with 103 wins, went down 3 games to 1, and only four teams had come back from that deficit to win the World Series: the 1925 Pirates, 1958 Yankees, 1968 Tigers, and 1985 Royals. Throw in a rain delay at the end of regulation with Game 7 tied, and you’ve got high drama to rival any sports screenplay to come out of Hollywood.

Curiously, this Blu-ray/DVD combo is titled Cubs: 2016 World Series Champions, but at first the focus is evenly divided between the Indians and the Cubs, giving an abbreviated backstory cubsscreen2for the Cubs’ and Indians’ title droughts. Without going into any detail—Chicago fans, for example, are expected to know the story of Steve Bartman and the Billy Goat Curse—the film editors cut in plenty of visual cues to remind (or confound?) you as they combine vintage footage over the years with shots of 2016 fans. There’s not much in the way of analysis, though. There’s no mention of Kyle Schwarber’s miraculous return from injury and his medical clearance to be a designated hitter but not play any position, or how Cleveland’s home-field advantage actually turned into a Cubs advantage because of the DH rule. But this documentary does provide a nice retrospective of how the Cubs finally won the big one, with slickly edited game highlights, miked players, interviews with club personnel, fan reactions (taken from all angles of the ballpark), and, in the case of Chicago, shots of fans outside Wrigley Field and popular watering holes like Murphy’s Bleachers and Harry Caray’s downtown.

Just as curiously, though, the dual focus on Chicago and Cleveland dissipates, so that by the end of Game 7 we don’t get interviews from the losing locker room when maybe unbiased fans might want to hear from both sides. Instead, the focus shifts to Chicago’s celebration and the parade that drew an estimated five million people—making it one of the largest gatherings of humans in history.

Fandom 250 rated Chicago Cubs fans #1 worldwide, and the TV ratings and that massive gathering all but prove it. This Blu-ray is a nice way for fans to pinch themselves and prove that it actually did happen: the Cubs are 2016 World Series Champions. It’s too bad, though, that some of the individual stories aren’t covered more. We see Grandpa Rossy, as the Cubs affectionately called catcher David Ross, being hoisted onto the team’s shoulders at the end of Game 7, but it will take a while for non-Chicagoans to realize that this was Ross’s final year before retirement. We see Bryant stroke two home runs, but there’s no mention of Bryzzo (the Bryant-Rizzo friendship/partnership and friendly competition for MVP), or the phenomenal play of Baez in the postseason. There’s also no subtitle to let you know you’re hearing Cubs’ radio play-by-play announcer Pat Hughes calling part of the action in addition to Cub-hater Joe Buck, who in Game 7 was already drawing up a list of previous Cubs’ “choke” moments after Cleveland started coming back. Fans need to know all of this on their own.

Still, it’s a nicely put-together documentary that doesn’t feel as slapdash and profit-minded as these too often do. It’s a nice way to relive the experience, and to prove to a generation to follow that the Cubs did indeed walk away with the Commissioner’s Trophy. It’s squeaky clean, too, with no foul language spoken or even discernable on the lips. The bonus features aren’t nearly as extensive as you might wish, but if you’re a diehard Cub fan and you want more, there’s always the full-game Blu-ray that features all seven complete games plus the Cubs’ win over the Dodgers that put them in the Series.

AMAZONIA (DVD)

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amazoniacoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes
2013, 83 min., Color
Lionsgate
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

To describe Amazonia (2013) as a Brazilian-French documentary is to make it seem tedious and dry, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. This live-action nature film is a wonderful choice for family movie night, for a number of reasons.

#1—Amazonia educates while it entertains. Viewers learn all sorts of things about the Amazon rainforest from a script that juggles cuteness and factuality with amazing adroitness. Martin Sheen provides the voiceover, but as Disney did with Perri and a number of other True-Life Adventures,
director Thierry Ragobert opted to combine nature photography with a fictional storyline. In this case, a born-in-captivity capuchin monkey named Saï (pronounced “psy”) finds himself flying out of Rio across the Amazon jungle. When the plane crashes, he’s left on his own to learn how to live in amazoniascreen1the wild for the first time in his life. We’re so focused on the cute little guy and his adventure that the voiceover lessons about the Amazon seem like fun facts rather than pedantic distractions. You’re glad you learned that there are over 2 million species of insects in the Amazon, for example, or that the rainforest provides a full 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen. You get the idea of how important it is to preserve the Amazon, and yet Ragobert doesn’t hit you over the head with an environmentalist message. It’s all about a monkey and his fascinating adventure.

#2—My daughter dislikes nature films for one simple reason: “They’re sad,” she says. That whole survival-of-the-fittest thing is depressing to her and
often frightening to other children. Amazonia is unique in that there is only one instance of a predator snatching prey, and since it was another monkey you find yourself less traumatized than you are relieved it wasn’t Saï. Though Amazonia is all about survival, it’s mostly upbeat. It’s the gentlest and most fun nature film I’ve seen, in fact. Even when Saï comes across an anaconda that could swallow him whole, the confrontation is quickly ended, but in a positive way. Same with every obstacle or danger the little guy faces along the way. Only when, starving, he eats some mushrooms and Ragobert gives us his version of “Pink Elephants on Parade” does the tone change briefly weird. Otherwise it’s all lightweight adventure and fun lessons learned about the Amazon.

amazoniascreen2#3—It turns out that Disney and BBC haven’t cornered the market on nature photography after all. Gustavo Hadba and Manuel Teran do a wonderful job of shooting in the rainforest and capturing all sorts of creatures in the process. Aerial shots and sequences involving a harpy eagle and jaguar on the hunt are especially impressive, but there are also wonderful close-ups of such creatures as frogs and snails and sloths. Did you know that sloths are good swimmers? We see them doing their thing thanks to underwater cameras, as we do pink river dolphins at play.

#4—Amazonia manages to sustain some credible tension despite the fact that it’s pretty lightweight as a nature film. There isn’t a lot of violence here, or predators tearing prey apart as you’d likely see elsewhere. Yet, I have to admit that I found myself in a state of tension a number of times. That’s a testament to the script, editing, and direction. The filmmakers have really woven together a compelling narrative with documentary footage and voiceover information.

All of which makes me convinced that Amazonia would make for a great first nature film to introduce children to, and even those who don’t respond well to the survival-of-the-fittest world of nature films will find this a welcome change of pace. I have only one complaint: it would have been great to get this in HD.

BARBARIANS RISING (Blu-ray)

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barbariansrisingcoverGrade: C/C+
Entire family: No
2016, 336 min. (4 episodes), Color
HISTORY / Lionsgate
Not rated (would be PG-13 for some violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

HISTORY (formerly The History Channel) has been criticized for focusing too much on American history, and so you’d think that their docudrama Barbarians Rising would be just the thing to silence those critics. But while the subject matter may be international, the production itself is all too familiar. The four-part series tracks the rise of “barbarians” against the Roman Empire, blending voiceover narration, interviews with scholars and (curiously) Civil Rights leaders, and dramatic reenactments. That mixture feels as unbalanced as some of the historical figures we encounter along the way, and the series’ undoing is ultimately those reenactments . . . some of which go on way too long, and feature little in the way of dramatic tension.

barbariansrisingscreen1The first episode, “Resistance,” focuses on Hannibal from the time he is a boy sworn to try to defeat Rome through his famed crossing of the Alps. Nicholas Pinnock (a Shakespearian actor who appeared in a minor role in Captain America: The First Avenger) is fine as Hannibal. The problem is with the scenic construction. There’s no built-in drama to the scenes, which often go on way too long and therefore prevent viewers from finding a comfortable rhythm as the series jumps from reenactments to talking heads and various maps and illustrations that feel more like lectures than integrated enhancements. With shorter reenactments or more dramatic ones, the balance of narrative components might have seemed more fluid and natural.

That’s the series’ chief weakness—other than the fact that Caesar’s Gallic Wars seems to have been ignored. Aside from that apparent oversight, its strength is overwhelmingly the barbariansrisingscreen2subject matter itself, and the fact that it educates audiences about not just well-known figures like Hannibal, Attila the Hun (Emil Hostina), and Spartacus (Ben Batt), whose gladiator-slave rebellion also qualifies as “barbarian,” but also lesser-knowns like Viriathus (Jefferson Hall), a shepherd from western Hispania/Iberia who reached out to other groups in order to build an alliance that could stand up to Roman expansion. His story is fascinating because he survived a massacre and used his knowledge of the Romans to help his people wage what now would be called a guerilla war against the more formal and militaristic Roman army.

Narrated by Michael Ealy, Barbarians Rising might be tonally consistent, but the episodes themselves vary in quality. The series manges to find a foothold with the opening episode, which features the stories of Hannibal and Viriathus, then peaks with the Spartacus and Arminius episode titled “Rebellion,” but then tapers off with “Revenge”—the stories of Arminius (Tom Hopper), Queen Boudica (Kirsty Mitchell), and Fritigern (Steven Waddington)—and fizzles when it should sizzle with the final episode, “Ruin,” which details Alaric’s (Gavin Drea) sack of Rome, Attila the Hun’s sweeping destruction, and, finally, the Vandal king—Geiseric (Richard Brake)—who brought about the end of the Roman Empire.

If it sounds fascinating, the subject matter certainly is. It’s the execution that’s disappointing. These stories could have been told in livelier fashion and with considerably more drama. As is, I found myself leaving the room to get a snack whenever the reenactments droned on too long and returning for the history lessons. Too often those reenactments were just plain dull. I kept wondering what the point was, and that was part of the problem. The reenactments didn’t feel well integrated.

I’m sure history nuts will still gravitate toward shows like this, but for families looking for an educational program that’s also entertaining, well, there are better options out there—though the transfers are top-notch, with two episodes per disc in this two-disc set.

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