Palo Alto International Film Festival

I SAID SCRAMBLED, NOT SOFT-BOILED!: Bruce Willis gives Joseph Gordon-Levitt some tips on diner decorum in 'Looper,' previewing Thursday at the Palo Alto International Film Festival.

The big event at the Palo Alto International Film Festival is a preview screening of Rian Johnson's Looper (Sept. 27 at 6pm at the Palo Alto Square). Johnson is a particularly quixotic director, influenced by the classic cinema to a degree unseen in others of his age. Brick (2005) stages a hard-boiled detective caper in a suburban Orange County high school; the idea sounds rebarbative, but the result was ultimately more acute than cute and showed the capability of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Dark Knight Rises) for lean, tough acting.

Johnson's charming 2008 feature The Brothers Bloom is one of the best and least-seen of confidence-man movies, and he gave Rachel Weisz a chance to excel in Audrey Hepburn levels of froth. I'm avid to see Looper (which opens wide Sept. 28) co-billing Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis in a particularly twisty time-travel story of assassins in two future eras—if only to see what Johnson (a shrewd one for setting a mood inexpensively) will do outlining the world to come.

At the festival, viewers will also find four free nights of outdoor movies to take advantage of the last of the summer weather. Thursday through Sunday, a series of food trucks will pull up to feed fans watching Dial M for Murder in 3-D (Thursday) with a new Disney short, "Paperman." On Friday: an anniversary screening of Stephen Spielberg's 1982 E.T. with Variety editor David Cohen on hand to explain it all for you. On Saturday, YouTube presents a series of hand-picked online films. Sunday, also in 3-D, the festival will show the vintage swamp horror of The Creature From the Black Lagoon.

Inside the walls, the festival hosts a number of documentaries, high school made shorts, classes and animation. Morgan Spurlock's Mansome concerns the plight of the meterosexual. Andrew Neel's shot-on-phone-cam King Kelly is a road-trip picture about an Internet performer on the warpath. Takashi Miike's violent yet emotionally stirring redo of the classic Hara-Kiri, played in this area recently, but not in 3-D as here. And reflecting this young and ambitious fest's emphasis on changing and emerging technology: Chris Keanelly's documentary Side by Side contrasts the end of film, with the rise of digital moviemaking, which is appropriate, seeing how the Palo Alto International Film Fest offers a choice between old-movie magic and snatched off the street imagery of today.

Palo Alto International Film Festival

Sept. 27-30; Palo Alto Square

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