Sundance Review: ‘Freaky Tales’

Battle Rappin', Nazi Killin', Kung Fu Revenge Fantasy Is Destined To Be A Bay Area Classic

When I told some of my friends that I was seeing a movie here at Sundance titled Freaky Tales, they all had the same comeback question, “What, is it a Too Short biopic?”  That’s fair. The West coast rapper dropped a classic in 1987 with his album, Born to Mack, featuring the titular track. And…well, they weren’t entirely wrong here, because Too Short is an exec-producer and even has a small role in this wild anthology revenge fantasy from the duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, set in the Bay Area of…you guessed it, 1987. It’s a film drawn from Fleck’s memories of growing up in Oakland, the places he cherished, and the people who inspired him. It’s the kind of crowd-pleasing effort that Sundance is often so good at kicking off the festival with, and it left the crowd roaring with applause when the credits rolled.

Boden and Fleck are what I like to call “Sundance royalty”, ever since their feature-length breakout here in 2006 with Half Nelson. They’ve brought other high-profile films here, including Sugar, and most recently Mississippi Grind. Outside of this, they directed the big budget MCU film Captain Marvel. But Freaky Tales is closer to what I think their strength is; enjoyable underdog stories with an edge. The more retro, the better. And in this case, they go all-out nostalgia with references to The Warriors, Game of Death, and the punk rock and West Coast rap sounds of the ’80s.

A collection of four stories loosely connected by events and a mysterious, possibly extraterrestrial green energy, Freaky Tales begins with a punks vs. Nazis showdown starring Avatar: The Way of Water‘s Jack Champion and Ji-Young Yoo. With The Lost Boys showing at the nearby movie theater and driving some funny conversation, a truck load of Nazis heckles those just leaving. It isn’t long before those same skinheads are on the attack, bullying those at a punk rock club that caters to gays, blacks, and everyone under the spectrum. Sick of being pushed around, they decide to arm up and fight back using whatever weapons at their disposal. Boden and Fleck have fun with the visual: when Tina (Yoo) smashes a Nazi in the neck with a bladed armband, comic book-style lettering splashes across the screen just as much as red blood goes squirting everywhere.

A chapter that could’ve used some punching up plotwise involves a battle rap between Bay Area rappers Barbie (Dominique Thorne) and Entice (singer Normani in her acting debut), collectively known as Danger Zone, based on the real-life duo who were key to Too Short’s track “Don’t Fight the Feeling.” The ladies, servers at an ice cream parlor, are confronted by a sleazeball cop (Ben Mendelsohn) with a grotesque use of double-entendre but are soon approached by an associate of Too Short who invites them to show where they can freestyle battle against the rapper. The ensuing showdown, in which Danger Zone endures Too Short’s big-booty attacks and slaps him around with verbal jabs of their own, is pure fire but needed more to set up such a hot finale.

They could’ve spared some of the time afforded to the third chapter, a crime tale led by Pedro Pascal as a small-time enforcer, Clint, who is about to bust up his last dude for late payment. He’s due to be a father and is ready to settle down with his lady, but of course, fate comes bursting in with violent intentions. However, the real showstopper happens before that with a terrific cameo from a beloved figure who talks Clint’s ear off with a quiz show’s worth of cinematic knowledge.

Action junkies will go nuts for the final story, though, in which Jay Ellis plays a Bay Area basketball legend, who goes absolutely batshit nuts on a bunch of Nazis who did him wrong. Boden and Fleck go hog wild on the movie references here, from Kill Bill to Enter the Dragon to Game of Death to Blade. This pure vengeful fantasy pushes Freaky Tales to the next level, and even features one of the final roles by the late Angus Cloud. While the film leaves audiences on an electric high with every triumph by the little guys, Freaky Tales is destined to be an instant West Coast classic.

Lionsgate will release Freaky Tales later this year.

Freaky Tales
Travis Hopson
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
sundance-review-freaky-talesWhen I told some of my friends that I was seeing a movie here at Sundance titled Freaky Tales, they all had the same comeback question, "What, is it a Too Short biopic?"  That's fair. The West coast rapper dropped a classic in 1987 with...