Big-name premieres and local documentaries shine at this year's event

The doughty Mill Valley Film Festival , about to commence its 28th installment, plays second string to nobody. Big-name premieres and tributes alternate with little films you may not get to see anywhere else. A particular joy not to be overlooked is Been Rich All My Life, a lovely record of chorines from 1930s Harlem clubs reunited as performers in their late 80s (their leader is 96!). Filmmaker Heather Lyn MacDonald skillfully interweaves vintage clips and new footage of her Silver Belles, gallantly facing aging and determined to entertain.

Wellstone!, a biography of the late liberal hero, will engage even those not familiar with Minnesota politics. The only post-1960s activist ever elected U.S. senator, the peppery Democrat was quite evidently an engaging camera subject, charismatic enough for us to imagine that he might have run and even won against G.W. Bush in 2004 -- if he hadn't been killed in a 2002 air crash. Paul Wellstone seems to have lacked the narcissism gene so prevalent among our Left Coast progressives; one wonders if he would have won here.

On a political topic closer to home, The Bridge So Far takes the engineers' point of view in its slide rule, clipboard, and hard hat indictment of the local pols accused of mishandling the rebuilding of the eastern span of the Bay Bridge. Willie Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger fare especially poorly in a sad saga of squandered money and time. Filmmaker David L. Brown unnecessarily sweetens his complaint by cutting in wisecracks from local comedians (Geoff Hoyle, Will Durst, and some guy who calls himself "Average Joe").

Silliness truly sinks another local project, Jonathan Parker's adaptation of Henry James' 1886 novel The Bostonians. Now set in Marin County and called The Californians, the tragicomic story of a reactionary's pursuit of a spellbinding feminist orator has been updated by casting Noah Wyle as a ruthless land developer entranced by his sister's protégé, a redheaded folk singer (Kate Mara). Unfortunately The Californians botches the sex war between relatives that drove James' original, as Illeana Douglas' eco-warrior is far weaker than James' angry feminist. Of a good cast, only Cloris Leachman excels with a fresh take on an aging activist; everyone else drowns in Marinite clichés.

For an inspired farce, viewers might instead prefer The Art of Breaking Up, the last film of the late, underrated director Michel Deville (Almost Peaceful). A free adaptation of a venerable farce by Georges Feydeau, this French comedy seems at first too excessively stylized to work, but scattered sparks catch fire and before you can say, "Who's that naked man in the corridor?" the film is blazing away with mistaken identities, jealous lovers, and slamming doors. Emmanuelle Béart heads a cast appropriately besotted with the agonies of ardor.

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