There’s nothing so freaky about “Freaky Tales,” Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s sci-fi omnibus ode to ‘80s cinema nostalgia that takes the definition of “derivative,” packages a bunch of retro cinematic references smugly into winky “you get it, right?” pastiche, and stretches it to its furthest possible event horizon.
The problem with structuring your film around four interlocking chapters, each with its own segueing title card, is if you’re not down with the first, you’ll be counting down the passage of time groaningly until the next. Last time they were behind the camera, Boden and Fleck had decamped their indie roots, including the lovely “Half Nelson” and “Sugar” — films powered by real characters — for the irresistible Faust’s bargain of directing 2019’s “Captain Marvel.” It seems they have not stripped themselves of the MCU’s cheeky, self-reflexive DNA, here writing and directing a film that thinks the coalescence of coincidences is the same thing as satisfying dramatic catharsis, but “Magnolia” this isn’t.
And neither is it “Pulp Fiction,” or “Scanners,” or “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” or the best of ‘80s kung-fu, or name-any-movie “Freaky Tales” homages across four installments set in Oakland 1987, which kicks off at the Grand Lake Theatre on the opening weekend of “The Lost Boys,” “Ishtar,” “Radio Days,” and “Raising Arizona.” Hanging above each chapter is the capable Jay Ellis as an Oakland Warrior basketball player who is also the spokesperson for a spiritual learning center called Psytopics. It’s just a cult with an uninspired name and a print and advertising budget.
Eventually, each of the ensemble will be affected by Psytopics’ supernatural psychic powers — communicated by cheap-looking squiggles of green light that take the form of lightning striking or a teardrop in an eye. You wish perhaps a meteor could be sent instead.
Chapter One, “The Gilman Strikes Back,” drops us into a group of punk-rock pacifists (led by Jack Champion and Ji-young Yoo) bent on taking down a pack of Nazi skinheads terrorizing Oakland. We know it’s the ‘80s, too, because scrawled on the wall of a graffiti-smeared underground music venue are the words “Reagan Sucks.” Boden and Fleck’s political reach ends there, as the screenplay attempts to superimpose a Generation Z sensibility — and we’re all for that — onto an ‘80s set to suggest Generation X wasn’t so different, either, and can’t they find common ground? A brawling scrape between the punks and the skinheads is suddenly pasted over with comic-book-style animatics apropos of nothing that thankfully don’t reappear.
“The Gilman Strikes Back” is shot in the boxy Academy ratio de rigueur, because we must tell stories now in the shape of an iPhone screen to convey visual intimacy. At the end of the first chapter, two small animated characters step jauntily onto the screen to push its edges to each side and expand that ratio, but you might wish they’d move in the opposite direction to close the screen shut altogether. Fake cigarette burn cue marks punctuate the frame now and then to suggest the forward motion of reels changing, all the better to evoke a celluloid atmosphere, but it’s just another chintzy gimmick to remind that the material organic soul of cinema is blatantly missing here. No amount of rear-screen projections or Wilhelm screams can make that illusion any more convincing.
Chapter Two, “Don’t Fight the Feeling,” the most left-for-dead of all in the film’s final grand scheme, revolves around Entice (Normani) and Barbie (Dominique Thorne), aspiring rap artists who work by day in an ice cream shop. On the eve of their big break, they’re sexually harassed by a cop, known only as The Guy (Ben Mendelsohn), who will prove significant in the subsequent stories and exists only as a punchable stand-in for all the hate, homophobia, and racism in the world. He throws slurs around like mints, and the screenplay mines laughs from your disgust and encourages self-congratulations that you would never endorse such a person.
Chapter Three of “Freaky Tales,” “Born to Mack,” introduces Clint (Pedro Pascal), a what-else-but world-weary criminal heavy going after one last job while his pregnant wife waits in the car, believing he’s just picking up some videotapes. There’s an outrageous cameo behind the counter at said video store, an actor whose identity I guess I should keep a surprise, who only underscores the movie’s worst traits, moments meant as winks to the people watching and nothing more. Tragedy predictably befalls as the job spins out of control, setting off Clint and the movie on a path of revenge. “Do you know who Jack Nicholson is?” a beady-eyed video store clerk asks Clint in a kind of movie quiz moment. This dourly always-ironic movie trains you to almost believe Jack Nicholson will eventually show up.
Lastly, “The Legend of Sleepy Floyd” centers on Jay Ellis’ Sleepy Floyd in a fictional retelling of a famed Warriors/Lakers playoffs game from that very May 1987, where the real Eric “Sleepy” Floyd bested the Lakers in a record-breaking play, a game Nicholson was probably at. Again, if you’re not already on the “Freaky Tales” wavelength, this won’t mean anything to you, but the movie never even tries to invite you to share in that enthusiasm for ‘80s trivia. It’s Trivial Pursuit for the culturally lazy, and no one wants you on their team, and if you lose, you’ll never get let back into the game anyway. Ellis, already demonstrably capable in TV’s “Insecure” and on film in “Top Gun: Maverick,” gets the film’s best showcase, but “Freaky Tales” turns his body into an instrument to deliver body-crunching, skull-splitting violence only.
“Freaky Tales,” which I just wrote as “Sleepy Tales,” descends into a bloodbath of Nazi revenge kills meant to elicit hoops and whoops from the audience, but similarly bloody stagings were done better in all the other films these flashy set pieces want to restir in your memory. “Freaky Tales” is Boden and Fleck’s attempt at applying their studio lessons learned circa “Captain Marvel” to something supposedly more personal, but this film just ends up only repeating that one’s most grating tendencies.
Their follow-up is so self-satisfied in its metaness, its hee-hee-get-it? in-jokes, that there isn’t really room for you to disagree or take part. It’s a jukebox of greatest better-than-this-one hits, the equivalent of watching someone painfully scream their lungs out at karaoke, hitting all the notes technically in tune and even with a little wow-what-pipes-they-have bravado, but you’d never deign to cut the mic and tell them they’re not the star they think are. Why ruin the fun everyone around you seems to be having?
“Freaky Tales” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.