‘Freaky Tales’ Review: Pedro Pascal and Ben Mendelsohn in an Electrifying Salute to Late ‘80s Oakland Pop Culture That’s Hella Fun

If it takes doing an MCU movie, with all the corporate constrictions that entails, to plunge into the kind of exhilarating creative exorcism that Freaky Tales represents, then bring on the superhero as stepping-stone. Before they made Captain Marvel, longtime filmmaking duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck established their talents with three boldly idiosyncratic indies, Half Nelson, Sugar and Mississippi Grind. But nothing in those distinctive works can prepare you for the kinetic energy, the freewheeling imagination and the righteous battles — we’re talking rap and some serious blade slice-and-dice — of their love letter to the Bay Area and the pop-cultural imprint it left on Fleck as a kid in the ‘80s.

The tales of the title are four chapters all built around the theme of underdog victory, each of them different in texture and tone yet all ingeniously interconnected and all owing something to the big-screen aesthetics of the time.

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The stories are stuffed to the gills with specific references to Oakland in the era, from local rapper cameos to beloved landmarks like Giant Burger, the Berkeley punk music venue at 924 Gilman St., the Grand Lake movie palace, Loard’s ice cream parlor, Sweet Jimmie’s club and the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum, where Golden State Warriors point guard “Sleepy” Floyd beat the Lakers with a record-breaking final-quarter score. But Freaky Tales is 100 percent user-friendly also to non-natives and non-hoops fans.

Then there’s the flurry of movie references. Boden and Fleck have cited Repo Man, The Decline of Western Civilization, Hollywood Shuffle, The Last Dragon and Scanners as inspirations. The mark of those films can be detected throughout, perhaps most amusingly in the mysterious, possibly alien green light source that charges the East Bay atmosphere and might be connected to a fictional self-help plan called Psytopics. Ubiquitous advertising claims that this mindfulness program will teach its participants how to control the force around them and use it to change their lives.

The ample carnage has its roots in kung fu but then knives, swords and an ax are brought to the party in an astonishingly choreographed final act in which the gushing fountains of blood and viscera become almost operatic. The sticky end of a magnificently odious villain is a direct homage both to David Cronenberg and to a John Cassavetes scene that might make even Brian De Palma finally love The Fury.

Animation, comic strip-style graphics and retro-vibe fonts are used to great effect, starting with a fun title sequence that looks like it’s been kicking around a projection booth for 40 years.

Chapter 1 is titled Strength in Numbers: The Gilman Strikes Back. Tina (Ji-young Yoo, divine) and her lovelorn friend Lucid (Jack Champion) are regulars at the club, where everybody looks hardcore with their piercings and spiked leather accessories, but the sign on the door vetoing racism, sexism, homophobia and violence makes it clear this is a welcoming place. However, that doesn’t extend to the mob of Nazi skinheads that descend to wreck the joint and rough up its patrons. That brutal experience prompts some expedited fight training and creative weaponry as they armor up for some serious retaliation.

In Chapter 2, Don’t Fight the Feeling, Barbie (Dominique Thorne) and Entice (Normani), aka Danger Zone, are scooping ice cream until they graduate from open-mic rap nights to the big time. They get what appears to be their chance when they’re invited to perform on a bill with local legend Too $hort (Symba), until a rude awakening indicates they’ve been set up for humiliation in a rap battle. But don’t underestimate the power of two disrespected women to respond with fire to unreconstructed ‘80s sexism. (The real Too $hort, whose song of the same name gives the movie its title, pops up briefly.)

A brilliantly cast Pedro Pascal steps in as crime-world debt collector Clint in Chapter 3, Born to Mack (another Too $hort reference). He’s about to become a father when a violent act from his past comes back to haunt him and it subsequently becomes clear that the unscrupulous boss for whom he works isn’t going to let him walk away. But no sooner has Clint decided it’s as good a day as any to die than he finds a reason to rethink that idea. Pascal’s late-night video store scene with a major-name star whose movies are the subject of droll riffs is a sweet surprise.

Chapter 4, The Legend of Sleepy Floyd, casts the blindingly charismatic Jay Ellis as the NBA All-Star, recapping his aforementioned triumph on the court with some cool animation. But it’s the jaw-dropping fictional developments after the game, when tragedy strikes and the Psytopics advocate suits up for some biblical-level retribution that will pave the way for Freaky Tales to become an instant cult classic. If Ellis’ career doesn’t rocket into a whole new orbit after this, then Hollywood just isn’t paying attention.

Every aspect of this movie works in deliriously loopy sync. That applies to Jac Fitzgerald’s invigorating camerawork, to a score by Raphael Saddiq that gets bigger and ballsier as the filmmakers up the suspense, and to production design and costumes by Patti Podesta and Neishea Lemle, respectively, that evoke the milieu and the period with a love that’s infectious. Freaky Tales is a project where every scene suggests what a blast they all had making it.

The performances are fully on board with the gonzo spirit right down the line. Alongside Ellis and Pascal, whose gift for combining soulfulness with tough-guy grit is expertly deployed, special mention needs to be made of the comic energy of Thorne and Normani, and of the malevolently humorous presence of Ben Mendelsohn. After bringing such depth of feeling to his work with Boden and Fleck in Mississippi Grind, the actor is riveting here as a corrupt cop who makes most other corrupt movie cops look like amateurs. The late Euphoria star Angus Cloud, who died tragically last summer, also turns up in amusing form as a criminal stooge, one of his final roles.

Freaky Tales is a genre-defying riot. Come for the crazy mix tape of circuitously connected plotlines, stay for the joyous explosion of vintage breakdancing on the end credits.

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