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Sundance movie review: 'Freaky Tales' a letdown from 'Captain Marvel' directors

Pedro Pascal stars in "Freaky Tales." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Pedro Pascal stars in "Freaky Tales." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

PARK CITY, Utah, Jan. 19 (UPI) -- Captain Marvel directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden went back to their indie drama roots with Freaky Tales, which premiered Thursday at the Sundance film festival. Unfortunately, the film is more derivative and misguided than most Hollywood studio films.

Freaky Tales is an anthology of four stories set in 1987 Oakland whose characters intersect. The opening narration tells of a green substance that fell to Earth and plays a small role in each tale.

The first and fourth stories climax in a bloody massacre. The latter is more like a samurai movie, but it still feels tiresome that that's where half the stories go.

In the first tale, the proprietors of a punk rock club prepare to battle Nazi skinheads who have been harassing them. Apparently, the acts are real Oakland area bands but won't mean anything to non-locals.

The fight is well choreographed but the graphic violence has no original ideas. Freaky Tales lifts exact shots from movies as iconic as Scanners.

Jay Ellis stars in "Freaky Tales." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Jay Ellis stars in "Freaky Tales." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

When artists like Sam Raimi and Quentin Tarantino employed graphic violence, they invented creative new violence. Now the John Wick movies explore creative mayhem.

The second story is about verbal violence. Rap duo Danger Zone (Dominique Thorne and Normani) is invited to battle an established act. Their rap is clever enough, and because they are lesbians they are also harassed by the same Nazis.

Normani stars in "Freaky Tales." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Normani stars in "Freaky Tales." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

The third story is about Clint (Pedro Pascal), a mob enforcer trying to do one last job and get out. But of course there's always another job and refusing it causes Clint more trouble.

The highlight of this story is Clint's visit to a video store that is a front for backroom gambling. Tom Hanks plays the manager and gives an amusing lecture on movies, though doesn't dissect them like Tarantino characters.

Anna Boden co-wrote and co-directed "Freaky Tales." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Anna Boden co-wrote and co-directed "Freaky Tales." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Fleck and Boden love their references to '80s movies, and stories of the real-life Hanks selling soda at Oakland As games. Just naming people and things isn't enough. None of the dialogue offers an observation, commentary or insight on said references.

In the last story, Oakland Warriors player Sleepy Floyd (Jay Ellis) is robbed while playing the LA Lakers. His revenge is the second violent melee.

Ryan Fleck co-wrote and co-directed "Freaky Tales." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Ryan Fleck co-wrote and co-directed "Freaky Tales." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Fleck and Boden imbue the film with empty stylistic choices. Each story has the screen a different size, expanding from square to full screen, then shrinking again with bars on the top and bottom.

But every story is presented in the same directorial style. The screen size changes are just an effect.

So is including fake reel change markers. The movie looks clearly like modern digital photography despite its 1987 setting, so adding elements from the 35mm film days suggests the filmmakers didn't even understand the value of those markers.

One character also visualizes comic book animation just to throw one more meaningless technique into this mashup.

Most anthology movies are hit and miss. Unfortunately, there is not even one great entry to make Freaky Tales worth sitting through.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.