By now, many of us have settle back into September. The kids are back in school, and those summer days are beginning to give way to the colder climate and changing colors of autumn. And for some moviegoers, it becomes a considerable task to try and find something decent. Or for that matter, intelligent. Speaking as a person whose spent the past 4 years of his life working at movie theatres, the time between the Summer and Holiday film seasons are usually awash in films that are usually R-rated and contain even less substance.

Of course, for those of us who live in larger metropolitan areas, we have the added chance to view films that I wish would eventually go mainstream. But alas, they're smaller films that Hollywood would rather show in limited release. And one of them just happens to be animated.

With the Hollywood system feeling that traditional hand-drawn animation is as dead as the dodo, it hasn't stopped several studios from getting into the distribution market for foreign animated properties. Everyone knows about Walt Disney Studios' deal for distributing the films of Studio Ghibli, Dreamworks Studios has begun to follow suit. Under their new distribution banner, Go Fish Pictures, the studio begins their launch on September 12, 2003, with "Millennium Actress," directed by Satoshi Kon (director of "Perfect Blue").

"Perfect Blue" is Kon's most recognizable contribution to Japanese feature animation. Dealing with the life of a Japanese Pop (music) Idol, the story then delves into her dreams to break into stardom, with several rather violent results. The film turned into a nice psychological thriller, but left me feeling cold. While rather violent, it wasn't a film I warmed up to as much as Hayao Miyazaki's features, or Mamoru Oshii's "Urusei Yatsura Movie 2: Beautiful Dreamer."

For those wondering if some of the rather violent imagery of "Perfect Blue" will make their way into "Millennium Actress," I can assuredly say: no. Kon's latest film sets out to tell an intellectual drama while at the same time making a palatable story that doesn't come along often.

"Millennium Actress" concerns Genya Tachibana, who along with his cameraman Kyoji Ida, set out to document the life of reclusive film star Chiyoko Fujiwara. Having been in seclusion for close to 30 years, the famed star has been reluctant to hold interviews. As Genya and Kyoji sit down with the aged star, she begins to tell a story of young love, her career, and a secret that hinges on a key attached to a string.

Genya is clearly shown as the director of Chiyoko's documentary, but it soon becomes apparent that he is a huge fan of her work. However, Kon uses Genya's fandom to give an added air of humor to the film.

But perhaps the film succeeds where some would assume it to fail. In a certain light, Chiyoko's interview is almost reminiscent of another old woman telling of her past. I speak of 'Rose Dawson' in "Titanic.'" But whereas Director James Cameron told us a story that Bill Paxton and his crew experienced from the sidelines, Chiyoko's story envelopes both Genya and his cameraman, as they find themselves literally standing alongside the actress and (incredibly!) interacting with her in some cases.

Kon then goes a step further and bends our perception by intercutting scenes and scenarios from Chiyoko's many films. Yet through it all, the film manages to keep us enthralled in the tale that she is making clear to Genya. Humor can also be found in Kyoji the cameraman, who begins to question his surroundings (hey, wouldn't you be confused if you were on a derailed train and suddenly found yourself in Feudal Japan a few seconds later?) and his Director's sanity (in a good way of course).

It is the melding of reality and unreality, fact and fiction, which ultimately makes the film work. To work a concept such as this is like walking one of the finer tightropes of storytelling. Yet Satoshi Kon does such an impressionable job, that he gives viewers one of the more enjoyable animated features so far this year.

The film is rated PG, but the story and concept may go over the heads of the casual movie viewer. Some who would rather sit back and have a story explained to them while cars and buildings explode on screen will probably not be part of the public who will enjoy "Millennium Actress." Be prepared to go into the film and have your mind exercised. For those with an open mind, this is one of the films you've been waiting for.

Now for some sad news. While "Millennium Actress" will see release in theatres this Friday, it is not planned for wide release. Only a select number of cities will be showing it. While press releases claim that the film will be released in both dub and subtitled form, I strongly recommend the subtitled. While many may opt for a dub, the original dialogue comes across easier to understand, at least from the print my girlfriend and I saw. However, the dialogue is slow enough that you have the chance to read what the characters are saying in the subtitles.

As well, Dreamworks is pulling a distribution stunt not that different from the one used for this summer's "From Justin to Kelly." Within a month or so of the film's limited release, "Millennium Actress" will be released on DVD. While some may opt to wait, the film deserves to be seen on screen. Though this is a more personal story with very few vista shots, many scenes scream for a theatrical experience.

As for accolades, the film won (along with "Spirited Away") the grand prize for animation at the 2001 Japan Agency of Cultural Affairs Media Arts Festival. It also took home honors from the Fant-Asia Film Festival, winning for Best Animation and the Fantasia Ground Breaker Award.

Now before I leave, you may be asking yourselves: "Wait a minute! The film is called "Millennium Actress," yet she can't be 1000 years old!" The 'key' to the film's title is interwoven into the fabric of the film. If you get a chance to view this film, see if you can figure it out.



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