Oakland’s freaky side emerges in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s ambitious yet tonally uneven new anthology film Freaky Tales starring Pedro Pascal, Jay Ellis, Ben Medelsohn, Jack Champion, Ji-Young Yoo, Normani, Dominique Thorne, Too Short and Lenny G. The directors spotlight diverse local subcultures against the backdrop of Too Short’s hit of the same name, with the film intertwining four tales linked by unfolding events and a puzzling supernatural emerald glow permeating the city. Though the gritty visuals and soundtrack immerse in the look and feel of 1987 Oakland, the narrative struggles to weave these stories into a satisfying whole.
The film opens on chaos with the segment The Gilman Strikes Back as young punks Tina (Yoo) and Lucid (Champion), usually retreating from violent Nazi skinheads, finally fight back when their underground venue is attacked. Next, in Don’t Fight the Feeling, best friends and rap duo Barbie (Thorne) and Entice (Normani) fend off harassment from The Guy (Mendelsohn), while pursuing rap stardom, battling none other than Too Short himself at a decisive rap battle. Born to Mack follows Clint (Pascal), a weary henchman hoping to go straight after one last job, whose quest for redemption fails when his violent past destroys a chance at a new life. Finally, The Legend of Sleepy Floyd reimagines when Golden State Warrior Floyd (Ellis) scored a record-setting 29 points in one playoff quarter against the L.A. Lakers.
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Oakland pulses with the spirit of revolution in Freaky Tales. The directors aim to channel Oakland’s legacy as the birthplace of the Black Panthers into an eclectic mix of stories centered on fighting back against oppressors, whether Nazis, cops, or one’s own limitations. But themes of resistance and empowerment feel underdeveloped and lacking nuance and struggles to weave its threads into something cohesive.
We open on a fun, madcap story of friends band together to take down a Neo Nazi gang. Then it shifts to two young lady rappers who aim to be the best. The camaraderie and banter make for an engaging start, but gives way to something far darker, causing the two halves to have little connective tissue. Only in the final moments does the audience see the stories intersect, but by then it feels too late and too random to satisfy.
A puzzling green glow permeates through the story, hovering over Oakland like an otherworldly entity. While its significance remains ambiguous even as the film closes, the eerie emerald light seems meant to symbolize Oakland itself or serves as a metaphor for Oakland’s eclectic, even mystical energy. The glow’s origins and meaning never fully materialize, leaving audiences to project our own interpretations, but again by the end does anyone care?
What does work for Freaky Tales is the film’s gritty visuals immediately immerse the audience in the look and feel of late-’80s Oakland. Grainy footage, bold makeup and costumes, an inclusive soundtrack — the film nails its period setting. The grain filter echoes grindhouse films of the era. Yet for all its slick style, the film lacks narrative substance to match. What helps are the magnetic performances by its all-star cast that attack each twist and turn and drip with charisma. Pascal delivers the strongest performance as a man choosing between his old life and his family. Without these talented players embracing the commitment required, the film would crumble under its own ambition.
Title: Freaky Tales
Festival (Section): Sundance (Premieres)
Director-screenwriters: Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden
Cast: Pedro Pascal, Jay Ellis, Normani Kordei Hamilton, Dominique Thorne, Ben Mendelsohn, Ji-Young Yoo, Jack Champion, Angus Cloud, Kier Gilchrist
Sales agent: WME
Running time: 1 hr 47 min
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