Documentary filmmaker Genya Tachibana has traveled, with his cameraman in tow, to a remote mountain lodge to interview the great Japanese actress Chiyoko Fujiwara who, 30 years ago, disappeared from the screen and public life. He is one of her greatest admirers and he presents her with an old key, a key that opens up Chiyoko's memories as she tells Genya her story of devotion, hope and love in "Millennium Actress."
Laura's Review: B
Genya Tachibana (Shozo Iizuka) is a documentary filmmaker thrilled to have been granted an interview with legendary screen actress Chiyoko Fujiwara (Fumiko Orikasa, Mami Koyama and Miyoko Shoji) three decades after she mysteriously withdrew from her career. He presents her with a gift - a key - which unlocks her memories and connects Genya to her past as she relates the history of a "Millennium Actress." Director/cowriter (with Sadayuki Murai, "Cowboy Bebop")/anime artist Satoshi Kon ("Perfect Blue") has developed a unique story structure that tells a mysterious love story within the history of Japan from the 15th century to the present as well as the history of a Japanese film studio. Tachibana and his cameraman Kyoji Ida (Masaya Onosaka) fancifully find themselves documenting Chiyoko's memories both as they happened and as they weave themselves in and out of the films she starred in. Chiyoko was born during Tokyo's Great Earthquake of 1923, which killed her father. Against her mother's wishes, she becomes an actress at a very young age, but it is the chance encounter with an injured painter (Kohichi Yamadera) wanted by government authorities that shapes her life. He leaves her with a key which she is determined to return, beginning a quest that haunts her as she runs from one historical adventure to the next, even taking a rocketship to the moon. As centuries change, from the Warring States Period of the 15th and 16th centuries to the Shogun years, through the Meiji Period of late 19th century and two World Wars, Chiyoko becomes a princess haunted by a castle wraith, a peasant girl, a ninja, an innocent, always fighting against older actress Eiko Shimao (Syouko Tsuda) and a man with a scar (Masane Tsukayama) while occasionally being saved by the adoring Genya. 'I cried 53 times at that scene,' says Genya as the elderly Chiyoko remembers. 'When did this become a movie?' asks Ida, who provides comical astonishment as he's whisked through history. Satoshi Kon emphasizes his heroine's running with her panting on the soundtrack, ultimately leading up to a montage of her running through a thousand years near film's end. Film sets appear to capture the different genres of Japanese filmmaking, the Samurai film, the costume drama, the 1950's family melodramas and even Godzilla flicks. In his most surreal moment, Chiyoko lands on the moon, her breathlessness echoing within the confines of her space helmet, to find a picture on an easel. Her beloved becomes animated, walking off into his own painted horizon, eluding her once more. Chiyoko is undeterred, however. 'After all, it's the chasing after him I really loved.' This wonderfully unique film is classic anime, but its story is so ingenious, it seems a genre unto itself. "Millennium Actress" requires attention to keep up with its movement throughout time and realities, but it will reward those do.
Robin's Review: B+
This is a boffo bio that, for one thing, begs for an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for Sean Penn. The versatile actor gives a subtle, nuanced performance as a man who, earlier in his life, became comfortable with his homosexuality. His emigration from NYC to San Francisco in 1972 was a transitional period for both Harvey Milk and his new hometown. He opened the Castro Camera store in the fast-becoming-gay Castro district of the city. The conservative city government and police force reaction to this influx of gays and lesbians leads to confrontations, often violent, between gay rights activists and the police. Penn captures Harvey Milk, the man, to perfection. Harvey, dedicated to the equal treatment for all in spite of sexual preference, soon becomes a leader in the movement and runs for the board of supervisors. He loses his first bid but it sparks increasing political awareness in the gay community. In 1977, after a citywide redistricting ordinance allowed neighborhood districts to elect their own candidates, Harvey won a seat on the city manager board of supervisors. After his election, Milk worked tirelessly for the rights of all, homosexual or heterosexual, making significant inroads into the conservative city and state politics. Van Sant, working a script by Dustin Lance Black, does a solid job in telling the story of the hopeful rise and tragic fall of a good, honest man who just wanted what is right for all of his constituents. Sean Penn brings nobility to the role of Harvey Milk but the supporting cast works equally hard in giving character to the real people they depict. James Franco, as Harvey’s once lover, muse and best friend Scott Smith, is an anchor as the ever-available ear to his friend. Josh Brolin gives a performance of escalating tensions as Dan White, a troubled man who will be the catalyst to Milk’s unfortunate martyrdom. Emile Hirsch (unrecognized by me, even after I knew who the actor was) is solid as Cleve Jones, a young man who supported and aided Milk in his exhausting campaigns. Alison Pill gives the right note to her perf as Anne Kronenberg, the self-professed tough dyke who takes over as Harvey’s campaign manager. The only weak note is Diego Luna’s Jack Lira, the young man who became Milk’s high maintenance and tragic lover. Lira’s neediness and Harvey’s acceptance of it did not ring true for me. The production is opulent and convincing with the many crowd and protest scenes giving believable scope to the civil rights movement that gripped and changed San Francisco in the 1970s. Longtime GVS collaborator, cinematographer Harris Savides, uses soft lighting and shadow but gets a crisp period feel, too. Danny Elfman’s music fits the bill, as does editing by Elliot Graham and production design by Bill Groom. Van Sant and his cast and crew capture the excitement and change gripping the country after the turbulent ‘60s and the calamity of the Vietnam War. “Milk” will get due attention come year’s end with Penn leading what could be an oft nominated awards choice. It is going to be a shoot out for the male lead but Sean Penn could be the quick draw winner.