Freaky Tales (2024)

Freaky Tales Review

Freaky Tales

During their trial period, “Half Nelson” co-directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden were just ripping off “Pulp Fiction.” Now, they’re late to the party again, recycling that model for this exhausting 1987-set East Bay pastiche.

Influenced by Berkeley-born Fleck’s preteen years (he would have been 10 in early ’87) and his wide-eyed way of romanticizing the defining subcultures of that time with what appears to be Boden’s best effort at widening the film’s incredibly specific “you had to be there” appeal indie duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden blow a big, self-indulgent kiss to the late-’80s East Bay with nostalgia-fueled anthology film “Freaky Tales.”

The wildly different sectors of city life are represented by four distinct but intertwining chapters peopled mostly with fresh faces (plus grizzled-but-gorgeous Pedro Pascal). There’s the rowdy-yet-respectful Gilman Street punk crowd; the revolutionary Oakland hip-hop scene (including Too $hort, whose raunchy rap anthem gives the film its name); Sleepy Floyd scoring a record-setting 29 points in the fourth quarter against Magic Johnson etc., etc. To tie it all together: A spike in neo-Nazi-linked hate crimes.

As if those worlds weren’t enough of a grab bag on their own, Fleck and Boden pack hundreds of vintage film, fashion and music references into each one starting with an opening image that’s kind of like “Repo Man,” only instead of glowing Chevy Malibus, it’s cosmic green shit. That phosphorescent energy represents whatever special mojo Fleck and Boden associate with Oakland during this particularly fertile era for local creativity. The filmmakers played a similar game in “Captain Marvel,” piling on the wink-wink tributes to mid-’90s pop culture. (Remember all the retro needle drops? And the Blockbuster Video scene?)

Here, they turn back the clock another decade, paying geek-out homage to all that was edgy and cool about Oakland circa 1987. It’s hard to say who Fleck and Boden imagine as the target audience for “Freaky Tales,” beyond the obvious hometown crowd. With its killer soundtrack and deep-cut allusions to everyone from Bruce Lee to Tom Hanks (who once hawked hot dogs at Oakland Coliseum), while celebrating the impact local musicians had on the zeitgeist, the script lays claim to practically everyone.

Chapter One focuses on the punk scene, which begat bands like Operation Ivy and Green Day. Beneath their tough exterior, East Bay punks were far more tolerant than their earlier New York and London counterparts: “No Racism. No Sexism. No Homophobia. No Drugs. No Alcohol. No Violence” reads a sign inside Gilman, a club brutally raided by a gang of skinheads who will return later for an even bigger street fight inspired less baldly by Walter Hill’s “The Warriors” than by WWE SmackDown!

The well-choreographed brawl is satisfying to watch especially when shot in slo-mo with sprays of blood but it violates a tenet of East Bay culture: namely that words are the best weapons. So Fleck puts this philosophy into action with Chapter Two, where Too $hort (played by Symba) challenges female duo Danger Zone (Dominique Thorne and Normani making her acting debut) to an epic rap battle.

Every story ends abruptly, with a cut to crazy TV commercials for something called “Psyotics” about the only consistency in a film that constantly shifts aspect ratios and visual styles from one section to the next. This is not Northern California “Short Cuts,” where everything is connected. No, these filmmakers are following not Altman but a wide array of cult directors, none more than Quentin Tarantino (who wouldn’t make his feature debut for another five years).

A bloated slog at first, “Freaky Tales” doesn’t hit its stride until almost 40 minutes in. But once it does, there’s about an hour of grindhouse glory (assuming streaming audiences stick around that long) including appearances by Sleepy Floyd, Too $hort and an unexpectedly A-list Bay Area actor (behind the counter of an old-school video store), plus a doozy of a finale featuring rising star Jay Ellis in what feels like a “Kill Bill”-style alternate-universe reimagining of Sleepy’s big night this time against a bigoted cop (Ben Mendelsohn) even dirtier than Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan.

But before Sleepy can exact his spectacular revenge, Pascal injects life into the movie with his appearance in Chapter Three. He plays Clint, a bone-snapping debt collector who’s trying to go straight. Leaving his pregnant girlfriend (Natalia Dominguez) in the car, Clint breaks some fingers for what he swears will be the last time but he doesn’t realize that fate has other plans for him. After so many punk and hip-hop segments that don’t feel like they could sustain a full-length movie on their own which makes it all the stranger when Pascal’s plot seems to end just as things are getting interesting inside police headquarters.

The way Fleck and Boden approach “Freaky Tales,” you’d think they were making their “Pulp Fiction.” After all, Tarantino’s movie jumped around in time to focus on characters who serve as background players in one another’s stories. Both films are pop-culture pastiche on a dizzying scale, and while it’s fun to see the duo cut loose with help from a cast that includes Sleepy Floyd, Too $hort and an unexpectedly A-list Bay Area actor behind the counter of an old-school video store “Freaky Tales” gives us less reason to care about its ensemble. Tarantino has an instinct for tension (and twisted comedy) that is all but absent here. Between “Half Nelson” and this piledriver of a movie, they might want to try dialing it back to human-level stories.

Watch Freaky Tales For Free On Gomovies.

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