Stars Shine at the Opening of the 12th Annual Newport Beach Film Festival

The Newport Beach Film Festival's annual occupation of Fashion Island began last night with another boozy, schmoozy and cruisey coming-out party in the Bloomingdale's Courtyard.

Stars spotted on the red carpet leading into Big Newport, in front of the screen after the end credits of opening night film East Fifth Bliss, or in the cordoned-off Absolut vodka bar included: Peter Fonda, Michael C. Hall, Robert Patrick, Christopher MacDonald, Jared Harris and either Tawny Kitaen or someone who got the "Tawny Kitaen" at a local cosmetic surgery office.

Colored lights, ear-blasting dance music and would-be starlets who appeared to have shared the same saltine cracker as their last big meal filled the tony shopping center's quad, which was ringed by tents serving Perrier, Absolut, Stella Artois and food from various local restaurants.

NBFF CEO Gregg Schwenk poses for my most in-focus cell phone shot of the night.
NBFF CEO Gregg Schwenk poses for my most in-focus cell phone shot of the night.

Before the party, everyone had been welcomed by fest CEO Gregg Schwenk inside Big Newport. He noted that when the festival began 12 years ago, the opening-night house was half full, 100 films went on to be shown and the kickoff gala was held in a hotel ballroom. Today, all 1,129 seats were taken inside the theater boasting the largest screen west of the Mississippi, the fest will present more than 420 films in 2011 and no hotel in Newport Beach has a ballroom large enough to host the opening-night gala.

"We have become, as they say, Orange County's greatest cultural feat," Schwenk told the crowd.

After thanking a long list of sponsors, including founding backer the city of Newport Beach that was represented by three City Council members, Schwenk invited all of the festival staff to join him on stage. He would go on to dedicate the night and entire festival to Saba Shirazi, the beloved NBFF publicist who died in a July 1, 2010, auto accident.

Following sponsor commercials that seemed to take longer than the movie that would follow them, East Fifth Bliss finally began an hour after the scheduled 7:30 p.m. start time. The snappy indie dramedy was well received by the audience.

Trust me, that's Dexter on the red carpet.
Trust me, that's Dexter on the red carpet.

Michael C. Hall, interviewed here, plays Morris Bliss, a 35-year-old resident of East Fifth Street in New York City introduced inappropriately in director Michael Knowles' second full-length feature: post-coital with a teenager who, as Bliss will discover, really is young enough to be his daughter. But as the story based on Douglas Light's novel unfolds, you discover that Bliss really hasn't matured much beyond his new partner's 18 years. He's unemployed, still living in his father's apartment and still not over the death of his mother when he was 14.

It is through the eyes of Hall's comfortably numb character that the audience meets the types of unique individuals who inhabit that part of the world, including his pushy paramour Stephanie (United States of Tara's Brie Larson, who nearly steals the picture), truth-challenged pal NJ (Greenberg's Chris Messina) and age-appropriate but married potential love interest Andrea (Charlie's Angels' Lucy Liu).

Things get complicated, frustrating Bliss' dad (Peter Fonda, channeling his own father's stoicism), endangering Morris' life but, ultimately, offering him an avenue out of his arrested East Fifth development. Some characters played more like caricatures and there were elements from the source material the movie could have done without since their full contexts are never exposed. But, overall, East Fifth Bliss is worth a visit to an indie theater or placement in a Netflix bin.
 

Peter Fonda, Michael C. Hall and Brad William Henke (or their holograms) face the adoring crowd.
Peter Fonda, Michael C. Hall and Brad William Henke (or their holograms) face the adoring crowd.

"I'm the oldest," Fonda told the adoring opening-night crowd as he stepped into the spotlight in front of the stage as the end credits rolled. Knowles had invited everyone who worked on the picture and was in Newport to join him for the Q&A. Hall, Light, Brad William Henke (who plays Bliss' high school buddy and later seemed to be having a ball bouncing around the Bloomingdale's Courtyard) and everyone from a financier to a make-up artist came up to share the love.

"I can watch this a lot," Knowles said of his picture. "I have watched it a lot. I could watch it again."

The breezy pace of the flick may have had something to do with a 24-day shooting schedule, a well-rehearsed cast and a well-oiled crew, which got it all done three days early.

Asked what attracted him to the role, Hall said he could relate to Morris being "stuck in life" and liked the fact that, through him, the audience "was a witness to all these crazy characters. This was a listening job."

Knowles said what attracted him was Light's novel, which he realized had movie potential as he read it. He told the crowd the author just sealed a deal to re-publish the book in light of the movie.

When someone asked Hall about the hotties who throw themselves at Morris, the actor explained that the audience is catching the shlubby character during an extraordinary period of his life, when he's actually "on a roll."

So is NBFF at 12. 

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