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

Categories: Film
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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.

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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.

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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.

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