- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2008

“Jazz Icons: Series 3” (Naxos, 8-DVD box set, $89.99) — America in the 1960s wasn’t always a welcoming place for jazz musicians. Many of the best headed to Europe, where adoring audiences almost guaranteed successful tours. Part of the legacy of that era, fittingly enough, is a treasure trove of video recordings made in European television studios and concert halls — footage rarely, if ever, seen since it was made.

Naxos has been dredging through those forgotten vaults, releasing stunning DVDs of everyone from John Coltrane to Ella Fitzgerald. With the debut this month of a seven-disc collection of performances by Sonny Rollins, Oscar Peterson, Lionel Hampton, Nina Simone, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, it looks as if the company has another winner — an often riveting look at some of jazz’s greatest players in their prime.

Shot between 1958 and 1975 in studios and small concert halls, the black-and-white videos don’t really capture the vitality of a club performance, and the settings sometimes can seem a little formal. However, that’s all forgotten in the intensity of the playing. To see Mr. Evans, head bowed deeply into the keyboard, performing “My Foolish Heart” in an intimate 1964 performance, or Miss Simone giving a playing-for-keeps account of “Mississippi Goddam” is to discover depths that audio recordings don’t always reveal. Also, who can resist the sly charm on Mr. Peterson’s face when he lets loose some unexpected changes? Or Mr. Kirk’s wildly kinetic mastery of the half-dozen instruments draped around his neck?

Recording quality varies from very good to excellent, and with more than seven hours of material on these discs, there’s enough to keep any jazz lover happily exploring for days. The DVDs can be bought separately or as a boxed set, and there are surprises on every disc; check out trumpeter Clark Terry scat-singing at the end of Cannonball Adderley’s set or the jaw-dropping virtuosity of Danish bassist Niels Henning Orsted-Pedersen — who was all of 19 years old in this recording with Sonny Rollins.

Stephen Brookes

Iron Man (Paramount Home Entertainment, two-disc special collector’s edition, $22.99; single-disc edition, $16.99) — “Iron Man” screenwriters Hawk Ostby and Mark Fergus usually aren’t keen on seeing their scripts change on a daily basis. They made an exception for the superhero smash, which hits DVD on Tuesday.

Not only did Mr. Fergus and Mr. Ostby, who previously teamed up on “Children of Men,” have to incorporate elements of a previous story treatment into their script, they faced a group of actors all too eager to improvise their lines.

“This was such an unusual process, such a collaboration,” Mr. Fergus says of watching “Iron Man” evolve daily on the set. “We got into the experience. Leave your ego out of this one. If you wear the ‘precious writer’ hat, you’ll go crazy.”

Getting to that point wasn’t easy.

They had to stare down a stack of comic books sent to them by Marvel Comics before the screenwriting process could begin. They pored over the issues, consulted with director Jon Favreau and got feedback from Marvel executives. Ultimately, the film’s production deadline forced them to simplify.

“It’s a story about Tony Stark trying to come to grips with his past and slay his father figure,” Mr. Fergus says. “That’s enough for one movie.”

No matter how many pieces seemed eventually to fall into place, they weren’t sure if the public would accept their version of “Iron Man.”

“I take my kids to all these summer movies. I was wondering if [‘Iron Man’] was too light on action,” Mr. Ostby says. “We were so thrilled to see that character mattered more to audiences.”

The success of “Iron Man” didn’t earn the team an encore. “Tropic Thunder” scribe Justin Theroux is set to pen the “Iron” sequel. The screenwriters seem relieved.

“How do you top that?” Mr. Ostby asks.

Christian Toto

Iron Man: Ultimate Two-Disc Edition, Blu-ray (Paramount Home Entertainment, $25.95) — Robert Downey Jr. dazzled critics, theatergoers and comic-book readers as Marvel Comics’ mechanized superhero in the live-action movie released this summer.

Paramount maintains the dazzle quotient with its high-definition tribute to the blockbuster. This two-disc Blu-ray set offers far more than the standard pristine resolution and high audio quality.

Specifically, fans get an informative documentary and interactive features. The selection delivers a well-rounded look at a character that has graced comic-book pages for nearly half a century.

First, and best, is a 47-minute exploration of the Iron Man’s pop-art roots. Loads of artwork and a healthy dose of memories from Shellhead’s co-creator Stan Lee will keep die-hards captivated.

Also worthwhile are the rare on-screen interviews with two other Iron Man comics visionaries, artist Gene Colan and writer Warren Ellis.

Next, technophiles can scrutinize the four versions of Stark Industries’ armor seen in the movie.

Almost three-dimensional in quality, thanks to the Blu-ray resolution, this encyclopedic presentation requires plenty of clicking with the remote. It comes complete with 360-degree views of the armor and close-up details and explanations of some of each suit’s features.

The other interactive, Iron Man IQ, uses the content-download system called BD-Live, which requires an Internet-connected Blu-ray player. Viewers basically take a multiple-choice quiz that displays on top of the movie. Questions delve into the story, technology and characters with minutiae that billionaire genius Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) would appreciate.

Joseph Szadkowski

Schoolhouse Rock! The Election Collection (Walt Disney Home Entertainment, $19.99) — The golden oldies on this “Schoolhouse Rock” election edition teach youngsters through catchy songs and comical animation about American history, the electoral process and societal and global issues such as the national debt and the energy crunch.

Best of all, this compilation from the long-running (1973-1986 and sporadically during the 1990s) educational television show on ABC is as relevant as ever. The “Energy Blues” song, which first aired in 1978, could have been produced yesterday, as it delves into environmental impacts from energy extraction and production.

The same is true for “Tyrannosaurus Debt,” which was produced in the late 1990s. Except back then, the debt was about $4 trillion; now it’s close to $10 trillion. Though it’s horrifying to any parent, one 4-year-old found this song catchiest of all: “Look at that funny dinosaur eating all that money.” Yikes!

Also included is an election tracking kit: a map of the 50 states and blue and red stickers for night-owl youngsters to affix as the nation’s votes come in on Nov. 4.

Gabriella Boston


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