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Once Upon a Time in Oakland

Sundance Institute

Freaky Tales (2024)

Named after a Too $hort track from his 1987 album, “Born to Mack,” “Freaky Tales” is a quadriptych chock full of interconnected characters – among them, a fictionalized Too $hort played by the rapper Symba and Too $hort himself narrating and making a cameo as a cop whose yen for rocky road ice cream is unfulfilled. The film, from Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden and premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, isn’t Too $hort’s “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” however.

Set in the 1987 Bay Area, “Freaky Tales” is an homage to ’80s analog audiovisual aesthetics – not MTV per se, but B movies with discolored cardboard sleeves that used to gather dust on Blockbuster shelves. Gradient graphics. VHS statics and pausing. Academy aspect ratio. The “cigarette burns” characteristic of projections of actual film that signal time to switch the reel. Infomercials. Setting all this to a different score might just prompt a vengeful ghost to crawl out of the TV set. You get the idea. It’s sort of like Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s “Grindhouse” but with less genre specificity and more vibes.

The revolving cast of characters includes pierced misfits who populate the punk scene and unwittingly become targets of skinheads, members of the hip-hop duo Danger Zone (played by Dominique Thorne and Normani) leery of an opportunity that seems too good to be true, a henchman (Pedro Pascal) whose postretirement plans have gone awry, a cop (Ben Mendelsohn) perverted in more ways than one and basketball player Eric “Sleepy” Floyd (Jay Ellis) who leads the Warriors to victory against the Lakers on May 10, 1987.

Though the characters are interconnected, each chapter is told from a different perspective. The recurring theme is that they all seem to be affected by some sort of radioactivity signified by the color green, or something. Some characters and storylines are more fully developed than others.

Mr. Fleck cited both the Warriors of the Golden State variety and “The Warriors” the Walter Hill movie during his introduction, but a witty little double entendre this film is not.

The David-vs.-Goliath battle between the punks and the skinheads that opens it is compelling, but the filmmakers inexplicably undermine it with animation, a whimsical choice mostly associated with Sundance selections in the aughts. It stands out as disjointed and gets the film off to a rough start.

One scene surfaces Tina’s (Yoo Ji-young) Korean heritage, yet it’s like a non sequitur and never properly followed up on. Similarly, chapter Danger Zone keeps hinting at trauma that triggers a group member far beyond genre- and industry-specific misogyny, but the film never articulates what it is. It’s as if the filmmakers are crying wolf to make a big deal out of something that ends up being trivial within the story’s context.

Mr. Pascal is a bright spot. He does a stellar job playing against type as a character that appears much older than others he has done. For some reason, the filmmakers then shift attention away from his character to focus on Mr. Mendelsohn’s. In the going-for-broke finale, Mr. Pascal is barely there.

It’s all gleefully gruesome – and that’s actually one of its strengths. Mr. Tarantino serves as an inspiration as mentioned – there’s also Tom Hanks spewing movie trivia in a cameo – but the gore here actually approaches the unhingedness of Takashi Miike and some Bollywood/Tollywood action flicks.

While “Freaky Tales” seems like a bold stroke for the team behind “Half Nelson,” it mostly recalls the mid-’90s wave of Tarantino knockoffs. Perhaps that’s when Mr. Fleck and Ms. Boden actually conceived it. If so, they’ve had three decades to work out the unevenness of the script.


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