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Tuesday, October 2, 2012


Like a tipsy drunk trying to pass a sobriety test, Starz' "Magic City" walks a fine line between Martin Scorcese toughness (think "Casino" Lite) and the kind of melodramatic behind-the-scenes industrial procedural that Arthur Hailey used to excel in (a la "Hotel").  In Anchor Bay's 3-disc DVD set MAGIC CITY: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON, the result is a crime drama-soap opera combo that's sporadically entertaining but not quite involving or convincing enough to keep us glued to the screen.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan stars as Ike Evans, the stern-but-fair head honcho of Miami Beach's biggest, swankiest resort hotel, the Miramar Playa, as 1958 draws to a close.  Ike's a family man with two grown sons--Stevie (Steven Strait), a chip off the old block, and Danny (Christian Cooke), an aspiring lawyer who wants to work in the state D.A.'s office.  Trouble is, the state D.A., Jack Klein (Matt Ross), is doing everything he can to nail Ike to get to his silent partner, a Chicago mobster named Ben Diamond (Danny Huston).

Huston does his best to make Diamond a silkily sinister mob figure but he's most effective when he isn't exploding in petulant outbursts of anger (the casual shooting of his wife's noisy dog during a phone call is his most unsettling moment).  Ike, a basically decent man, has made a deal with this devil to keep his hotel afloat and must accept all the not-so-decent stuff that goes with it, including the mysterious death of union organizer Mike Strauss (the ubiquitous Leland Orser) who threatened to picket the hotel during Frank Sinatra's New Year's Eve show. 

The hotel's most popular escort girl, Judi Silver (Elena Satine), is D.A. Klein's main link between Ross' death and the hotel, making her much sought-after by both Klein and Diamond.  This storyline, in addition to several increasingly hostile showdowns between Klein and Ike and an escalation of the violence by Diamond and his gang, gives "Magic City" its edgiest moments.  Even at its darkest, though, the series is too soft-edged and refined to deliver the heart-palpitating rawness of a Scorcese thriller or the subdued intensity of THE GODFATHER PART II (which it resembles at times in its look and musical score).

As Ike Evans' new wife Vera, the beautiful Olga Kurylenko is a much more charismatic and likable presence than she was in QUANTUM OF SOLACE, escorting us through some of "Magic City"'s more soap-opera-level subplots.  These include Vera's attempts to replace Ike's first wife as "Mom" in the eyes of his young daughter Lauren (Taylor Blackwell) and her desire to have children of her own--the latter leading to one of the show's most unnecessary sequences as Vera seeks supernatural help from a Santeria priest who ceremonially sacrifices a chicken to increase her fertility. 

On a less fanciful level, Vera's other dramatic concerns include trying to snare Jackie Kennedy as a special banquet guest and trying to talk Ike's father Arthur (THE GODFATHER's "Moe Green" Alex Rocco in a thankless role) into attending Lauren's bat-mitzvah despite his dogged aversion to religion.  We also see a spark of interest (on his part, anyway) between her and a former lover, a TV director overseeing a broadcast from the hotel, in a "will they? won't they?" situation that I'm hoping will be a dead-end.

The rest of the time Kurylenko serves as part of the show's seemingly endless supply of eye candy as she and Morgan function as one of several very active sexual couples whom we observe going at it like rabbits on a regular basis.  Another of these is son Stevie and his extremely ill-chosen sex partner, Ben Diamond's gorgeous wife Lily (Jessica Marais), as they go at it in a variety of locations including a public dressing room. 

Stevie's prediliction for photographing the two of them together with his Polaroid leads to a blackmail situation when the photos are stolen by a cat burglar working the hotel, in yet another subplot that does little for the show besides fill time between more important and interesting events.  Ditto for brother Danny's romance with pretty hotel maid Mercedes (Dominik García-Lorido), daughter of Ike's general manager Victor (Yul Vazquez), who is desperately trying to get his wife out of Cuba after the fall of Batista. 

During all of this, we actually get to see Ike trying to keep the hotel solvent by hosting live network television events such as the "Miss 1959 Pageant."  The prospect of snagging "The Garry Moore Show" will mean nothing to some viewers while igniting a warm spark of nostalgia for others, especially when the names of potential guests such as Jonathan Winters, Don Knotts, and George Gobel pop up.  Other name-dropping (the McGuire Sisters, "the Lawfords", Kim Novak) will go right over the heads of younger viewers.

The show basks, revels, even wallows in its period atmosphere and all the dirty-money decadence that goes with its particular setting.  Things look and feel just right most of the time, thanks partly to a faded, sunbleached look in the exteriors and opulent, smoky interiors (almost everybody smokes) that boast some of the most elaborate sets ever constructed for a television series.  Car lovers will be in heaven at the sight of all the beautiful vintage automobiles on hand here.  The show has a distinctive noirish look that's lush, romantic, and practically dripping with sexuality, with a main titles sequence worthy of a James Bond film. 

The 3-disc DVD set from Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby English 5.1 and Spanish mono.  Subtitles are in English and Spanish.  Extras include a making-of featurette, brief looks at the show's cars, styles, set design, and music, and a history of Miami Beach. 

While it's nice, for a change, to see this subject done without all the usual Italian mobsters stabbing, shooting, and dismembering each other, and with a main character who hasn't completely turned to the dark side, MAGIC CITY: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON is only moderately as hard-edged and ruthless as it wants to be.  What it does right, though, is to be cool and sexy and to look good (I can almost hear Fernando Lamas say, "It is better to look good than to be good"), and to be marginally entertaining despite a tendency to meander down its own Memory Lane.

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Blu-Ray/DVD combo

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