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Sundance Review: 1980s Oakland Comes Alive in 'Freaky Tales'

"There's nothing cool about being a Nazi."

Something strange is afoot in the city of Oakland, California, circa 1987. Green ooze and lightning permeate the town as residents of the East Bay experience peculiar happenings in their own backyard. The punk rock spirit of the era is the perfect backdrop for "Freaky Tales," a movie that presents four interconnected stories surrounding real Oakland hot spots during a time of great cultural and societal significance.

Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck ("Captain Marvel"), "Freaky Tales" stars a large ensemble of actors and singers to assist in weaving several stories together, some overlapping and some resulting in death and mayhem. Pedro Pascal, Jay Ellis, Ben Mendelsohn, Normani, Dominique Thorne, and narration by rapper Too Short provide a characterization of an Oakland nostalgic for movie theaters, basketball fever, video rental stores, and city pride. Angus Cloud costars in the film in one of the Oakland native's last onscreen appearances after passing away in 2023.

Four stories jumpstart the premise of "Freaky Tales," using a small set of characters to drive the film forward. Beginning outside of a historic movie theater, an extensive sequence details teenage punk rockers' ability to fend off a gang of Nazis who threaten their favorite club in an epic battle. Another story starts at the same movie theater, where two young singers are approached to perform at a well-known bar during open mic night, culminating in a different type of battle of the rap variety. The third account allows the audience to learn more about Clint (Pedro Pascal), a hitman looking to retire and take revenge against those who hurt his wife.

In the fourth story of "Freaky Tales," the interconnectedness of its characters becomes crystal clear. A high-profile game between the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers converges in a climax where real-life heroes and fictional beings team up to kick some major ass. Jay Ellis is featured prominently throughout the film as the real-life basketball player Sleepy Floyd, a man whose Psytoptics wellness program has taken Oakland's green ooze and cultivated it as part of a self-help initiative some view as a cult.

"Freaky Tales" tries desperately to be "Pulp Fiction" for a new generation, never living up to the latter's expectations but remaining an entertaining ride nonetheless. It is the heir apparent to "Stranger Things," propelling a movie steeped in nostalgia toward safeguarding the unlikeliest of heroes. Boden and Fleck have infused a sense of realism into their characters, many of which are grounded in optimism even in the face of monumental obstacles. Some stories hit better than others, but from a 30,000-foot view, the film excels at depicting these stories in a fresh and evocative manner.

Using real-life figures mixed with fictional Oakland residents makes for an exciting watch. Supernatural elements further advance these intriguing tales, especially in moments when the audience knows something Herculean is about to materialize. A well-timed cameo might be the best part of the film, none of which will be spoiled in this review…but take it from me - it's well worth sticking around for.

A genre-bending throwback to movies that would have debuted to cult status in the 1980s, "Freaky Tales" takes a well-worn formula and imbues it with energetic performances. If not for some of these talented performers, the film might not work as well as it does, but thankfully, a hefty indie spirit exists to conjure up the look and feel of a stark Bay Area underbelly. Police corruption, racism, feminism, athleticism, and mystical occurrences help to define a movie unlike those that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year.

Ticket Rating: 🎟🎟🎟1/2


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