Magic City: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Anchor Bay Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (3rd January 2014).
The Show

The latest (and considering it was unceremoniously cancelled, last) 8 episodes of creator Mitch Glazer’s "Magic City" buckle under the weight of too many characters piling up from insufferable narrative inertness. Debauchery abounds within, but so does boredom. Those looking for a meaty serialized story to go along with the depraved actions of mostly unlikable characters are sure to be at least somewhat disappointed. The first season was stuffed with salacious scandal—mostly, just pay-cable sex—but it seemed to pick up in the second half, when a more structured story, and more focused character drama, began to unfold. Unfortunately, season two is a step forward and two back. The serialized yarn from season one continues to unwind, albeit at a glacial pace in the second outing, where numerous new subplots are introduced and the sensationalized elements are as pervasive as ever.

Everyone has to answer to someone. For Ben “The Butcher” Diamond (Danny Huston) that someone takes form in displeased Chicago-based Jewish mob boss Sy Berman (James Caan). Sy is a strangely cool Chicagoan, with a bad temper boiling just beneath his calm exterior. Unfortunately for Ben, Berman’s not too pleased with the way “The Butcher” has carved out his place down South, resulting in a most unbidden visit from his boss before season’s end. Played by none other than Sonny Corleone himself, the character of Sy, and the major casting coup of Caan joining in ranks alongside Huston and his duelling on screen partner Jeffrey Dean Morgan—as “Magic City’s” protagonist, uneasy hotelier Ike Evans—is one of the only bright spots of “City’s” otherwise dull, tedious second season.

Without question, the series looks—like a majority of its young and usually handsomely dressed cast—stunning. It’s a gorgeous period production, but empty on the inside, lacking that special something that would make it tick like a fine tuned watch its numerous characters played by fashion-mag model cast members might wear. Glazer claims “Magic City” was inspired by his youth. The various, nefarious things he saw while working as a cabana boy; and the even worse stories his family and friends routinely recounted of their days in a time when the Mob ruled Miami, and the CIA unsuccessfully tried to blow up Fidel Castro half a dozen times. I don’t doubt the influences—even if I do question the absolute truth of some of the tall tales translated, and presumably at least already partly embellished. “Magic City” plays out exactly like the inflated reminiscence of days gone by, all half-remembered and chaotically cluttered by nonsense. But an even more likely influence on the writer/creator—and the real reason it was green-lighted way back when the Starz network was hungry for original content—is, rather obviously, that of two television juggernauts. It’s a mash-up of Matt Wiener’s “Mad Men” (2007-present) and David Chase’s “The Sopranos” (1999-2007). “Mad Men” for the time period touches, and historical periphery. “The Sopranos” for the mobsters and premium cable visceral gratuity. Unfortunately, all of this is mixed together without the most important ingredient: the morally complex characters. A third influence—itself, by proxy, a forbearer to Chase’s seminal HBO mob-family series—becomes clear with plot revelations, and the addition of Caan in season two; Coppola’s “Godfather” trilogy (1972-1990). The result is as muddled you’d expect the unholy union to be, and plenty unoriginal and predictable too. Ike Evans is Don Draper light—a deplorably charming double-talker, but without the sense of depressive doom-and-gloom, although attempts are made to dour down. Likewise for Ben Diamond. “The Butcher” has the fury of Tony Soprano, but again comes up deficient in depth of character, despite effort. The writing is just not in the same league as the influences, or even up to par of its own astute aesthetics.

In the final days of the 1950's—just after it became “Castro’s Cuba” and just before The Kennedy’s resided in Camelot—Ike Evans is owner/operator of the Miramar Playa, one of the most luxurious hotels in Miami. Entered into a soul-selling agreement with the diabolical Ben Diamond, a sadistic silent partner to save his legacy from ruin, the series sets up Ike and Ben as foiled rivals caught in bitter battle, all with the emerging hotbed of Little Havana as a backdrop. In between the two men are their wives, children, and extended family. For Ike, that means second wife Vera (Olga Kurylenko); troubled teenage daughter Lauren (Taylor Blackwell); his two sons, the straight-arrow law student Danny (Christian Cooke) and bad-boy Stevie (Steven Strait); his aged father Arthur (Alex Rocco); and Meg (Kelly Lynch), his now deceased first wife’s sister. Ben only has trophy wife Lily (Jessica Marais), his third spouse, whom he is neither faithful to nor loves.

One of the most frequently addressed, but equally ill-executed plot-lines in the series has been Glazer attempts to pit Ike and Ben as the push-pull for easily swayed Stevie, who could go down his father’s morally questionable path or “The Butcher’s” most decidedly despicable one. In the second season, this becomes an even bigger conflict, complicated by Stevie further affair with Ben’s wife, Lily. Ben openly encourages it, and even enjoys watching from time to time. Steve’s sordid scandal isn’t the only sex-plot; there’s frankly a ton of, largely overwrought, soapy plop further intertwining Danny Evans with his Cuban maid girlfriend, Ike and his former sister-in-law, and Vera and others. Not that I have a problem with sexed up anything. It’s just that, proportionally, it doesn’t add up. There’s too much focus on the sensational elements over genuine character development and plot. It’s a shame, as in terms of pure production value “Magic City” is an unmitigated success—period accurate costumes and set design, attractive cinematography, and a balance between beautiful talent and actually talented stars. Danny Huston delivers as the wonderfully over-the-top Diamond, cannibalistic in his hunger for scenery and surroundings. He both elevates and overshadows everyone he shares the screen with, save James Caan who does the dirty, dangerous mobster thing without having to lift a finger, underplaying where Huston overdoes it.

Season two sees a further exploration of the Cuban immigrant influx post-revolution, including the underlying criminal element encroaching on the mob’s territory; characters deal with the possibility of a legalized gambling bill passing in Florida; Danny straddles both sides of the law, attempting to protect his family and impress his new boss, District Attorney Klein (Matt Ross); former Havana showgirl Vera gets ready to put on a new performance in the States; Ike tries to end things with Diamond as he continues to learn what a loon he is; and, of course, there’s the Sy Berman subplot, which remains one of the only narrative-forwarding moments of the season whenever addressed (which, sadly, isn’t as often as I’d have liked.) In my review of the first season, I made an offhand comment that I feared the series would never get a chance to pick up steam, thinking it’d get cancelled soon, as most things on Starz are. Indeed, it has been cancelled—like the similarly short-lived “Boss” (2011-2012), after a strange two-seasons-at-once order. I’m a little disappointed, to be honest, not because the second season is an improvement over the first season, but because most of the story elements that are actually intriguing this time around are partially the one’s left unanswered. It makes the second season worse than the first in a way, because rather than slowly building on a sense that something bigger lay just offshore, over the horizon, approaching the port of “Magic City”, it now feels as though the ship has already docked and then abruptly departed on a voyage without passengers who never even knew it came in. There’s adventure to be had still, but never to be seen.

“Magic City: The Complete Second Season” includes 8 episodes on 2 discs. Episodes run approximately 46 to 53 minutes in length. Optional play before each episode; a useful option to turn these on or off is available from the main menu. Episodes include:

- “Crime and Punishment”—While Ike sits in jail for a murder rap, the family tries to quickly raise money for his $1 million bail, and in their haste accidentally discover who his silent partners are. Meanwhile, Miramar Playa’s largest silent co-owner Ben Diamond is concerned that Ike will fold under pressure and offers to help.

- “Angels of Death”—Ike's dicey plan to rid the hotel of Ben Diamond is set in motion, while at the same time, Ben requests permission from Chicago to put a hit on Ike. Stevie saves Bel the bookie (Michael Rispoli) from imminent death. Stevie and Lily go on an actual date. During Passover seder, Meg threatens Vera. And Vera prepares for her dance show.

- “Adapt or Die”—While Ike visits Cuba on business, Stevie gets more involved with Ben Diamond. Later, a sluggish Vera struggles to get through exhausting rehearsals and Stevie offers a peppy pick-me-up.

- “Crossroads”—Ike considers a dicey deal with mobster Sy Berman; Danny learns the truth about Ben Diamond after he fully commits to Dade County District Attorney Jack Klein; and Ben puts a kink in an arms deal involving the Cubans.

- “World In Changes”—Ike and Meg grow closer as Meg assists in the fight against the gambling bill; Vera comes to a realization about her dancing future; Ben makes Stevie an offer.

- “Sitting on Top of the World”—Stevie's drunken DJ convention invades the hotel, while Mercedes (Dominik García-Lorido) reveals startling news to Vera, and Ike initiates a scheme to fix the Cuban lottery. Later, Ben's plans for revenge go astray.

- “And Your Enemies Closer”—Ike's plans to run the hotels in Havana impact his connections to Victor (Yul Vazquez), while Stevie's new position with Ben begins. Later, Klein plots to destroy Ike; and Sy Berman shows up in Miami.

- “Sins Of The Father“—In the Season 2 finale, the outcome of the gambling bill stands to have a major impact on Ike and Ben's future, while Klein contemplates Ike's offer to take care of The Butcher.

Video

The second season of “Magic City” looks much the same as season one. That’s to say, intensely stylized and artificial, but ultimately pretty, well, pretty. Glazer and cinematographer Steven Bernstein make a somewhat successful attempt to recreate the look of true 35mm capture, and the aesthetic of the late 50's and early 60's. Or at least, how it was seen through cinema. Shot digitally, with the Arri Alexa, and tweaked in postproduction, “City” fakes the look kind of convincingly. The opening credits and several other scenes throughout the eight-episode run that are awash in a heavy layer of faux-grain, softening filters are employed in actress close-ups, and rear-projection-like CG backdrops carry the methodical mimicry even further.

Behind the façade, however, “City” clearly isn’t a 35mm product of the late 50's or early 60's. It’s 2013-digital through and through. The picture is shockingly clear, crisp, and sharp (with rare exception)—and the frequent contrast fluctuations, clipping and crush, as a result of some intense color grading, ultimately betrays the “of the era” effect. Contrast runs hot, and daylight exteriors are bathed in bold, warm, super-saturated hues, befitting the balmy Miami setting. The black level is occasionally weak, tinted towards a blue during night scenes (again, like day-for-night would’ve been done in the 60's), but in most scenes it’s deep and rich. Overall, detail is excellent, with fine texture clearly evident in clothing and the elaborate sets and breathtaking locales.

Far more problematic than the intentional stylization is the compression, and overall quality of the AVC MPEG-4 encodes for season two. While the first season of “Magic City” was given plenty of room on three discs—each offered in 1.78:1 widescreen 1080p 24/fps high definition, with episodes almost evenly distributed 3-3-2 to a disc—season two crams the same content onto two platters. This is rather curious, as the set still contains a third disc, but it is used only for supplements. Faint artifacts and non-source based noise are a much bigger problem this time around, with noticeable instances of faint blocking occurring at least once per episode if not more. Luckily, edge enhancement and artificial sharpening artifacts, unwarranted noise reduction, color banding, aliasing and any other anomalies are minimal. Make no mistake, the second season of “Magic City” looks good, but I’m at a loss why the third disc wasn’t used more efficiently. Two or three episodes a disc, with special features spread evenly throughout, makes way more sense to me, than over compressed dual discs with a mostly barren third.

Audio

The highlight of “Magic City’s” soundtrack continues to be composer Daniele Luppi’s score. Clearly channeling Henry Mancini, music is the key to “City”. The English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack (48kHz/24-bit) is understated, but nicely done, offering an eclectic mix of popular period music—from crooners to local Cubans. Fidelity and overall clarity is at the mercy of any period track worn down with age. But Luppi’s new material is rich and full. Dialogue is crisp, and always intelligible. The track is very subtle in atmospheric surround effects, but is still satisfying. Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, and optional subtitles in English and Spanish has also been included.

Extras

Season two’s superficial and succinct supplemental package gets a third platter all to itself. What I want to know is: why? The five featurettes on disc three amount to about 20 minutes of material when all added up; surely, the extras could’ve been compressed onto either of the other discs, or split between them, without issue? More to the point, if you’re going to use a third disc why not split episodes more evenly over the set (like the 3-3-2 array, which worked just fine for the first season). It just seems like a waste of space, especially in light the crowded confines on the other discs.

DISC ONE:

Pre-menu bonus trailers are for:

- “The White Queen” (1.78:1 1080p; 1 minute 54 seconds).
- “Da Vinci’s Demons” (1.78:1 1080p; 2 minutes 2 seconds).

DISC TWO:

There are no extras on the second disc.

DISC THREE:

The first of the recap heavy EPK featurettes included in season two is titled “The Gamble For Havana” (1.78:1 1080p; 3 minutes 5 seconds). The cast and crew talk about one of the second season’s biggest plot points—a possible vote to legalize gabling in the state of Florida—and how to could affect various characters.

“The Criminal Element” (1.78:1 1080p; 4 minutes 47 seconds) is another EPK featurette, this one detailing the many criminal enterprises around Miami and how each character is connected to at least one of them.

“Tales From the Underbelly” (1.78:1 1080p; 4 minutes 59 seconds) is a recap-heavy featurette, looking at new characters and story lines in season two, including the introduction of James Caan’s Sy.

“Magic City Style” (1.78:1 1080p; 1 minute 52 seconds) is a brief featurette all about costumes.

The final featurette, “The Music That Makes the Magic” (1.78:1 1080p; 5 minutes 52 seconds), focuses on the period music used extensively throughout the series.

Packaging

“Magic City: The Complete Second Season” arrives in a 3-disc set from Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. Each dual layered BD-50 is mounted on its own page of a tri-fold digi-pack. A slip-cover encases the digi-pack. Although well made, with sturdy construction, the package is ultimately pretty cheap. Synopses or an episode guide have not been included, despite the vast amount of empty space underneath the disc hubs and the interior flaps. The release is locked to Region A.

Overall

Impressive production value. Good acting. Some really inconsistent (occasionally, really bad) scripting. “Magic City” was unceremoniously cancelled the week of its second season finale due to poor ratings. The audience was nonexistent, sure… but maybe if it’d actually been, you know, advertised? I suppose it doesn’t really matter; it wasn’t that good a show anyway. Not unlike some members of its cast, and picturesque locale in which its shot and set, “Magic City’ is nice to look at; undoubtedly attractive. There just isn’t a lot more going on beyond the look, and that makes it kind of a bore after a while. Of course, the Blu-ray offers a pleasing A/V presentation, but comes up disappointingly short on extras.

The Show: C+ Video: B+ Audio: B Extras: D+ Overall: C+

 


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