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France-Premiere-Tinker,-Tai.jpg The cast and creative team is coming together for "Devil's Knot," a movie about the West Memphis 3 case based on Mara Leveritt's 2003 book of the same name. Today, it was announced that Colin Firth, last year's Best Actor Oscar winner for "The King's Speech," would play Ron Lax, the private investigator whose pro-bono work helped free Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. From via Reuters:

Lax, originally from Memphis, Tenn., built a successful private investigation business that is one of the largest in the southeast. When he heard that the state of Arkansas planned to pursue the death penalty against Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, he offered his services.

But he was reluctant to participate in a movie, according to Fowler.

"He's a private investigator," Fowler said. "He's not a person who seeks attention or publicity."

She said that she convinced him to participate in the project "so we could tell the story with him as our male lead because it was important to get this story told, and a feature film would reach many more people."

Atom Egoyan, director of such films as "Chloe" and "The Sweet Hereafter," has signed on to direct. Filming is to begin this summer in (wait for it) Louisiana. Nashville-born Reese Witherspoon will star alongside Firth, according to Deadline:

Witherspoon will play Pam Hobbs, the mother of Branch. She initially believed the trio murdered her son, is eventually persuaded that the three suspects are innocent and wrongly accused.

PICTURED: Colin Firth at the French premiere of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" two weeks ago in Paris. (Christophe Ena/Associated Press)
Sundance-Portrait---Kee(2).jpg When last we heard from Memphis-born filmmaker Ira Sachs, he was executive producing the 2011 film "Woman's Picture," the second feature from fellow Memphian Brian Pera. Sachs is in Park City, Utah, this week working the Sundance Film Festival. His latest movie, the gay romantic drama "Keep the Lights On," is his fifth entry in the festival. It turns out that Sachs and Park City go way back, to the filmmaker's teenage years in Memphis, according to a story on The Salt Lake Tribune's website:

At age 15, Sachs came from Memphis, where he grew up, to spend some time in Park City with his father -- a developer responsible for establishing one of this mountain town's landmark hotels, the Yarrow. That was back when "Park City was a little hippie ski town," he recalls now.

On that trip, young Sachs attended the United States Film Festival -- the precursor to the Sundance Film Festival -- in Salt Lake Ctiy's old Trolley Corners theater.

"I grew up thinking there was something called independent film, which I wouldn't necessarily have had access to if there wasn't Sundance," Sachs said in an interview.
asopen2.jpg Memphis filmmaker and actor Kentucker Audley stars in a new Memphis-based film being released online for free by director and Audley collaborator Joe Swanberg, according to an item posted today on the Los Angeles Times' website:

Joe Swanberg --best known as one of the pioneers in the independent filmmaking movement known as mumblecore -- is releasing a new film online for free next week. It's called "Marriage Material." The film is about a young couple living in Memphis who agree to babysit their friend's 6-month-old for a day. The experience causes them to examine their own relationship and their feelings about marriage and children.

Swanberg worked as cinematographer on Audley's 2009 film "Open Five," and Swanberg tapped Audley's unconventional marketing tactics as one of the reasons he is releasing "Marriage Material" at no cost:

4. Kentucker Audley, the star of "Marriage Material,"  has posted several of his films on Vimeo for free and runs a website, No Budge, that "showcases the new class of no-budget films," so it seemed appropriate to premiere the film this way.

PICTURED: Kentucker Audley (left) and Joe Swanberg film a scene for "Open Five" on Aug. 13, 2009, at DejaVu Creole restaurant.
Writing in the Midland Reporter-Telegram, Texas raconteur Tumblewood Smith tells the made-in-Memphis backstory of Donnie Dunagan, a former child actor who worked with Boris Karloff and provided the voice and face of Walt Disney's 1942 "Bambi" before his family fell apart and he ended up in an orphanage. After a career in the Marine Corps including service in Vietnam and a stint as the youngest drill instructor in Corps history, Dunagan earned a PhD. in physics from Oxford and worked with the U.S. Department of Defense. Now in his 70s, Dunagan, who kept his "Bambi" fame a secret during his Marine career, is making the press rounds as a lost child star for the 70th anniversary BluRay release of "Bambi." From Smith's profile:

Donnie Dunagan grew up dirt-poor in Memphis, Tenn. He and his parents lived in a two-room flat above a hardware store. A few blocks from his house a man named Sam set up a crank victrola every day and danced to the music. People passing by would watch him for a while and drop a few pennies and nickels in front of him. In 1938, when Donnie was 4 years old, his mother took him to see the dancing man. Although Donnie was barefooted, he started mimicking the dancer. The man, who Donnie says was very courteous, asked Donnie's mother if her young son could join him. She agreed. The crowd loved it and Donnie spent the summer on that street corner with Sam. The pennies and nickels turned into dimes and sometimes even quarters.


Memphis had a talent show in a historic downtown theater and Sam convinced Donnie to enter. The prize was o$100, a fortune back then. Donnie danced, wearing a top hat and cane and won. The next day, Donnie and his parents walked to Sam's house and gave him $50. Sam nearly went into shock.

An RKO talent scout happened to be in the talent show audience. He was in Memphis visiting his mother. Within a couple of days, Donnie and his family were on a train bound for Hollywood. Donnie had never been to a movie. The movie studio put the family up in a nice hotel and gave them a car to use at their disposal. After a screen test, RKO loaned Donnie to Universal. His first film was "Mother Carey's Chickens," a story about a World War I orphanage. That launched his movie career and for the next two years, he was the family breadwinner. He was in "The Son of Frankenstein" and became friends with Boris Karloff, who played Frankenstein. "He was a riot," said Donnie, at his home in San Angelo. "He taught me how to play checkers."

Morgan Freeman still unable to use hand 3 years after car wreck

Three years after a car accident in North Mississippi that left him and a companion hospitalized -- and spawned an embarrassing legal mess -- Memphis-born actor Morgan Freeman still has yet to regain use of his left hand, he said this week on "Live With Regis & Kelly."

The veteran actor broke his arm and shoulder when he lost control of his vehicle while driving in Mississippi in August, 2008. The car veered off the road and flipped over several times.

He has been disabled ever since the accident and doctors advised him last year (10) that it would take another 12 months before his stretched nerves would fully function once more.

But, during an appearance on U.S. talk show Live with Regis & Kelly on Tuesday (27Sep11), Freeman admitted his mangled fingers were taking a lot longer to heal.

Wearing a supportive glove throughout the interview, he explained, "It's coming along, it looks a little odd with this glove on..."

PHO-09Mar26-155817.jpg Memphis-born-and-raised actress Cybill Shepherd will reunite with her sometime-director and former romantic partner Peter Bogdanovich at a screening their 1975 film "At Long Last Love" at this week's Temecula Valley International Film & Music Festival in Southern California.

Festival Director Jo Moulton said she was surprised at Shepherd willingness to appear.

"I thought she was going to say, 'Are you crazy?' But she said yes. So it's a reunion of sorts," Moulton said Thursday morning.

A meticulously recreated homage to '30s movie musicals that included songs by Cole Porter and starred Shepherd alongside Burt Reynolds and Madeline Kahn, "At Long Last Love" is an infamous turkey that was actually disowned by its eccentric director. This year, though, it has been making the festival rounds and turning up on Netflix and the Fox Movie Channel, which is significant in that the movie was never released on VHS or DVD.

PICTURED: Cybill Shepherd in a scene from the 1971 film "The Last Picture Show," directed by Peter Bogdanovich.
The feature documentary film "Undefeated," about the football team at Manassas High in North Memphis, is being screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, which runs this week and next. After its premiere in spring at the South by Southwest Film Festival, the film was picked up for distribution by the Weinstein Co. The Hollywood Reporter has a positive review of the film:

In the 110-year history of Manassas High School in North Memphis, the school's football team, the Tigers, has never won a playoff game. But the 2009 season provided their strongest shot ever, thanks to a star left tackle, O.C. Brown, attracting attention from college scouts for his size and speed, though struggling academically to achieve qualifying grades. Even more crucial, however, is the dedication of volunteer coach Bill Courtney

... While some audiences might chafe at seeing another story in which disenfranchised African-American lives are elevated by white benevolence, there's no questioning the conviction of the story as presented here, or the unstinting commitment of Courtney, a white businessman, and his fellow coaches.

From the archives, here's the story The Commercial Appeal published two years ago about Brown and the families who worked to keep him on the right path to college and beyond.

Fred Smith-backed Alcon Entertainment expanding into talent management

Alcon Entertainment, the film finance company backed by Memphian and FedEx founder Fred Smith, is moving into the talent management business by acquiring a stake in a boutique firm called Madhouse Entertainment, according to stories in the Los Angeles Times and Variety. From LAT:

(Madhouse clients) include "Lost" co-creator Jeffrey Lieber; Nick Wauters, the creator of NBC's now cancelled series "The Event"; and David Guggenheim, writer of next year's theatrical thriller "Safe House."

Though it's not out of the ordinary for production companies to also employ talent managers, it is somewhat unusual for a venture as large as Alcon, which has the financial resources to produce big-budget feature films. The company fully finances its own movies, which are then released by Warner Bros. under a partnership that runs through 2015.

The Madhouse deal is just the first step in Alcon's plans to enter the management business, Variety says:

Madhouse will become the first component of Alcon Management Enterprises, designed as a holding company for as many as six talent management companies Alcon intends to acquire. In each deal, Alcon will acquire a controlling interest while each existing management team continues to maintain a significant ownership percentage and continues to operate in a largely autonomous manner.

So who's on the Madhouse roster?

Madhouse clients include Dave Andron, co-exec producer on FX's "Justified"; Liz Garcia & Josh Harto, creators of TNT's "Memphis Beat"; screenwriter David Guggenheim (Universal's "Safe House"); screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (Alcon's "Prisoners"); Lauren Iungerich, creator/showrunner of MTV's "Awkward"; screenwriter Dave Kajganich ("The Invasion"); Liz Kruger & Craig Shapiro, creators of USA's "Necessary Roughness"; Jeffrey Lieber, co-creator of "Lost"; and Jason Smilovic, creator of NBC's "My Own Worst Enemy" and ABC's "Karen Sisco."

Meanwhile, here's what the LAT says Alcon, which scored a huge hit with 2009's "The Blind Side" and recently released the rom-com "Something Borrowed," has in the pipeline:

The company will soon open its family movie "Dolphin Tale" and its development slate includes new movies based on the science-fiction classic "Blade Runner."

'The Help' opens big in flyover country; top theater in Memphis

The new civil rights-era film "The Help" rang up more than $35 million over its five-day opening, good enough for second place in the box-office rankings behind "Planet of the Apes." Variety points out that "The Help" demonstrated unusually broad appeal in that all five of its top engagements were between the coasts. The market with the No. 1 theater? Memphis.

With more than 100 weeks on the bestseller list, Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" has been read by book clubs in every corner of the country.

Now Disney-DreamWorks' film adaptation looks to be repeating the book's widespread appeal. It's unusual for a film's top engagements to be outside New York or L.A. -- but on "The Help's" opening weekend, all top five playdates fell between the coasts.The top theater for the tale of the bond between a black maid and her white employer in the 1960s South was in Memphis, Tenn., followed by Jackson, Miss. (where the pic is set), then Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas.

The spread of top theaters is indicative of how broadly "The Help" played.

Perhaps even more significant, were the amount of "definite recommendations" the film received from auds in exit polls.

The average definite recommend for a film is in the 50%-55% range. "The Help" received 95% definite recommend from women over 35; men under 35 put the film in that category 70% of the time. The strong rating means word-of-mouth should continue to propel the pic.

"The Help" was filmed about 100 miles south of Memphis in Greenwood, Miss., and several Memphis actors and crew members worked on the film. Read John Beifuss' review here, and check his story on the film's local actors here. And click here for Jennifer Biggs' piece on the Memphians who worked as food stylists on the show.

The Miami Herald's wrestling column features an interview with legendary Memphis wrestling promoter Jerry Jarrett, who is promoting both the film documentary "Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin'" and his own autobiography, "The Best of Times." Jarrett touches on everyone from WWE mogul Vince McMahon to Jerry Lawler to the great Saturday-morning announcing duo of Lance Russell and Dave Brown.

"At that time, Lance felt compelled to say every card was great. He was the carnival barker. Your credibility is more important than the credibility of our company because if the people don't believe you, who else will they believe. So Dave and Lance would literally tell the people, 'Here's the card Monday night folks. Let's get ready for our next match.' If it doesn't excite them, it doesn't excite fans. If it was a card Lance and Dave thought was great, they would say that, and people would come, because it was great. The people believed in it."
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Deputy Online News Editor Mark Richens takes you through all the news about Memphis from sources outside the Mid-South.