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Puppet Nazis vs. the Grindhouse Gang!

● Jackboots on Whitehall (DVD/VOD/Digital cable July 26)● American Grindhouse (DVD/Hulu July 26)

by Steven Boone

The animated comedy "Jackboots on Whitehall" does its best to tweak every British stiff-upper-lip stereotype ever perpetuated in film and popular culture since World War II. This satire employs puppet animation techniques familiar from "Team America: World Police" and classic George Pal puppetoons, but with exquisite production design more akin to Wes Anderson's stop-motion "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Instead of marionettes or stop-motion, however, filmmakers Edward and Rory McHenry employ animatronic dolls enhanced with CGI.

The period detail in this account of Hitler's alt-reality occupation of London is stunning: a convincing re-creation of Whitehall, the road whose major landmarks comprise the seat of British government; the airship Hindenburg, which, in this reality, never blew up and now serves as a Nazi attack vehicle; Hadrian's Wall and the hills of Scotland; vintage fighter planes, palaces, tanks, luxury cars... Equally meticulous is the costuming, from Winston Churchill's pinstriped suit to the Raj soldiers' blue turbans.

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While the McHenry brothers' puppets aren't articulated beyond some binary limb and neck movements, they are sculpted with such expressive character it's easy to suspend disbelief. Exuberant character voices help. Timothy Spall as a gruff Churchill, Alan Cumming as a fey Hitler and Tom Wilkinson as a simpering Goebbels play it lip-smackingly broad. Richard E. Grant portrays a tightly wound priest so perpetually furious that its possible he gave his entire performance through clenched teeth. Ewan McGregor lends the unlikely farm boy hero some warmth. Along the way, some downright filthy jokes fly by almost subliminally, under kids' radar (including a visual joke last seen in "Boogie Nights"). In fact, so much of the humor is adult, whether in raunchiness or complexity, that Jackboots on Whitehall is less a family film than one for liberal parents and their precocious teens. The DVD includes a fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary that details just how much love went into this handcrafted epic.

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"American Grindhouse" covers the history of American exploitation films in the manner of a good basic cable documentary, giving us all the major highlights at a rapid clip without settling for too long on any one thread. It feels comprehensive, even if a seminal title like Russ Meyer's "Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" flashes by in the rush to cover it all.

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A platoon of expert commentators includes some of the greatest -- and "greatest" -- exploitation directors, like Jack Hill ("Switchblade Sisters"), Larry Cohen, William Lustig ("Maniac"), Fred Olen Ray and Herschell Gordon Lewis ("Blood Feast"). The sharpest insights come from more mainstream directors who either started out in or devoured exploitation movies as young fans, like Jonathan Kaplan ("Truck Turner"), Joe Dante ("Piranha"), Lewis Teague ("Cujo") and John Landis (whose incisive readings of the genre and its various subgenres qualify him as a film critic or professor). Female voices are in relative short supply, but film critic Kim Morgan and indie director Allison Anders are on hand to provide some perspective on a genre that often exploits women above all. Morgan insists that women clamor for T&A just as much as men do.

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The film gives particularly short shrift to the blaxploitation era, and yet treats it with greater respect than most other strands of exploitation filmmaking chronicled here. The fact that black exploitation films trafficked in roughly the same amount of sex, drugs and taboo imagery that its predecessors indulged seems less important to Drenner than the opportunity it gave black artists to finally express themselves on film. He presents "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" and "Superfly" as virtual civil rights triumphs. He has a point, but in a documentary that doesn't shy away from nudity or violence, it seems a peculiar departure.

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Still, "American Grindhouse" is bursting with priceless footage, such as a filmed presentation by Will Hays, the puritanical Hollywood censor whose Hays Code sent viewers who craved sex and violence turning to independent filmmakers -- the first great wave of exploitation filmmakers. Mousy and virginal-looking, Hays is like Dennis Kucinich minus a personality. He seems so fragile and humorless, as if he'd indicate his objection to a code infraction by fainting. The film also vividly describes the carny-like travelling filmmaker-distributors known in the 1930's as The Forty Thieves. These hucksters set up screenings in whatever stray theaters in the heartland that pre-antitrust Hollywood did not control.

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The grindhouse specialties that spun out of this tradition in the ensuing four decades includes "educational" films (about taboo subjects that provided an excuse to show breasts or blood), juvenile delinquent films, biker films, teen sexploitation, women in prison flicks, gore, schlock and at least one "Nazis versus Jesus action-thriller," "The Tormentors" (1971). "American Grindhouse" samples them all in a swift, always eventful rundown.

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Steven Boone is a film film critic, filmmaker and video vandal based in New York City. He champions big ideas and small budgets at Big Media Vandalism, writes about essential films at Keyframe and Press Play, and about his experiences with homelessness at Capital.

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