THE STORY – In 1987 Oakland, a mysterious force guides The Town’s underdogs in four interconnected tales: Teen punks defend their turf against Nazi skinheads, a rap duo battles for hip-hop immortality, a weary henchman gets a shot at redemption, and an NBA All-Star settles the score. Basically, it’s another day in the Bay.
THE CAST – Pedro Pascal, Jay Ellis, Normani Kordei Hamilton, Dominque Thorne, Ben Mendelsohn, Ji-young Yoo, Jack Champion, Angus Cloud & Kier Gilchrist
THE TEAM – Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden (Directors/Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 107 Minutes
Ah, the anthology film. Loved by some, dreaded by others (or maybe even most). It can sometimes be hard for such a film to fully solidify its purpose when broken up across differing segments, even if they’re connected by something. “Freaky Tales,” the latest film from Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, the team behind “Half Nelson” and “Captain Marvel,” tells four stories about life in Oakland, California, in 1987. It’s clear that the filmmaking team has affection for this place and time, but it’s hard to pinpoint precisely what the directing duo intends audiences to take away from the stories. With no overarching narrative besides an underexplored sci-fi subplot, the film doesn’t even seemingly serve as a love letter to the Bay Area in the ’80s, with stories focused on violence, prejudice, and scummy characters.
The first segment, entitled “Strength in Numbers,” explores a punk club that finds itself consistently beset by a gang of skinhead Nazis, intent on putting an end to the open-minded, diverse experience that the club offers. This chapter introduces the audience to the film’s stylistic approach, which is intent on capturing as much energy from ’80s filmmaking as possible, including a grainy film look and reel-change markers in the upper right corner of the screen. In addition, we also learn about the one element found in all four stories: a vaguely magical, green energy that seems to travel from its source at a pseudo-scientology practice into important objects or people when they most need it. For example, here we see the weaponized spiked bracelet of one of the punks glow green before it tears into a Nazi. The battle between the two groups is extremely cathartic (who doesn’t like to watch a bunch of Nazis be brutalized?), but otherwise, this chapter feels hollow.
Next up is “Don’t Fight the Feeling,” the empowering story of a female rap duo called Danger Zone, made up of Barbie (Dominque Thorne) and Entice (singer-actor Normani). They are given the opportunity of a lifetime when a well-known male rapper invites them to perform at his next show. However, this turns out to be a set-up, with said star intending to use the girls to make his performing skills appear even greater by comparison. The climactic rap battle is a joy to watch, with both women uniting in defiant verse to show up the misogynistic artist. Both actresses in Danger Zone bring likable energy to their characters, with Thorne playing the more headstrong of the duo and Normani playing the kind of unsure-but-likable performer who’s easy to root for. They also effortlessly perform a fun retro-style music video over the end credits for the song “What Would It Look Like.”
The third segment, “Born to Mack,” is undoubtedly the best. It follows a tough-guy-for-hire named Clint (Pedro Pascal) as he wraps up one last job before planning to settle down with his wife and soon-to-be-born daughter. Pascal is perfect for the role, bringing an enigmatic and intimidating energy to the character, even if he’s shown to have a soft side for those he loves. He also runs into an important character played by a famous actor in a hilarious cameo. Bay Area residents will be delighted. This segment is probably the best example of the film’s strange tone. It’s gleeful and fun, even when the subjects it depicts are very serious or upsetting. These contribute to the film’s sleazy, grimy energy that serves as a throwback to genre films of the ’80s. Regardless, this chapter is easily the most focused, centering around Pascal’s protagonist. This clarity of purpose makes it the obvious high point of the film.
Unfortunately, the final chapter is a marked step-down. “The Legend of Sleepy Floyd” tells the story of the titular real-life basketball player (Jay Ellis) and his legendary Mother’s Day game in 1987. It takes some apparent liberties with the truth, eventually culminating in yet another stylized rampage against a group of Nazis. Ellis is as charming as Floyd and executes the violence with necessary confidence. Ben Mendelsohn is a hoot as the villain – a corrupt, racist cop. His line delivery is terrifying yet darkly humorous, and at one point, he snorts the most outrageous line of coke, perfectly playing into the film’s underground ’80s energy. But outside of these performances, the chapter just feels like an excuse for a long fight scene that’s not filmed in as much of a creative or engaging way as some more modern, sleeker action films.
For audiences seeking a reminder of the low-budget genre films of yesteryear, “Freaky Tales” will surely satisfy. But besides serving as a nostalgic ode to a time before smartphones, it’s unclear what most are expected to get out of it.