George Clooney | Isaac Hayes Leads Memphis Blues Ball

Syriana: Clooney's CIA Movie Is 'Fahrenheit 411'

Basically, in "Syriana," writer/director Stephen Gaghan (the Oscar-winning adapter of "Traffic"), former CIA agent Bob Baer and producers George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh have made a thriller for people who read the Financial Times.

It's also a companion piece in many ways to a great movie Clooney starred in several years ago, "Three Kings."

Shot in Morocco and Dubai, "Syriana" may be an eye opener to Westerners who don’t give much thought to world events.

Syriana was screened Friday night at Cinema 2 in New York City, a sort of bunker movie theater in a basement, while upstairs in Cinema 1, Clooney’s "Good Night and Good Luck" was doing sold-out business.

Upstairs: the paying public. Downstairs: as much media elite as could fit in a room, with Robin and Marsha Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Mike Myers, Amy Irving, Nora Ephron, Jason Lewis, Catherine Crier and Lisa Bloom of Court TV, plus lots of editor/writer types and quite a few Academy voters.

ABC News chief David Westin moderated a panel after the screening with Clooney, Gaghan and Baer fielding questions.

It was the first totally finished print, Gaghan told us, completed last Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. The last thing he did was pick the font for the closing credits (it’s from a restaurant in Venice called Axe and pronounced ah-shay).

He started working on the film in 2001 and did a massive amount of travel and research with the help of former CIA agent Baer, upon whose book, "See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism," the movie is largely based.

In case you’re interested in this: the CIA has not seen the movie nor approved the script because Baer didn’t write it. They did vet his book, in which you will find many redacted pages with big, black markings covering sensitive material.

"Syriana" is a thriller, but it can be a bit confusing. The basic story is that an oil company has set up shop in the Gulf, just as a merger is going through. The local royal Arab family is in the middle of a succession as the Emir (king) is about to step aside for one of his two sons: an idiot, and a sensitive, forward thinker. Guess who gets the job?

Clooney plays a CIA agent who’s a little over the hill and washed up. But he’s onto the fact that the government and the oil companies are trying to stay in control through the manipulation of who becomes king.

There are murders and international intrigue, as well as two subplots. One involves Matt Damon as an American derivatives trader living in Geneva with his beautiful wife (Amanda Peet) and their two very cute little boys. The other is about two young Arab men looking for work and being courted by fringe terrorist groups.

Damon is so good that he is likely to get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work. Of Clooney’s whole "Ocean’s 11" posse, Damon is easily the most talented.

"He’s it, the real thing," Clooney said when we talked about Damon.

Damon is a standout, but there are plenty of "smaller" roles played by terrific actors including Tom McCarthy, Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, Mazhar Munir, Jeffrey Wright, Tim Blake Nelson (who has a funny speech explaining the historical importance of corruption) and the memorable Alexander Siddig (as the smart prince).

Indeed, the actors are so uniformly good from the start that they all seem very real, as does the situation. This is "Fahrenheit 411," meaning full of urgent information that rings true in every scene. Liberals and conservatives all have to put gas in their cars. One look at the prices, and you know that "Syriana" is not far off base.

Clooney was there with an unidentified blonde who sat in the back during the Q&A with a black hat pulled down to hide her face. He gained 30 pounds to play a fictionalized Baer. On screen he looks and feels bloated, sporting a gray beard and effecting almost a waddle.

His character is no joke, though. He’s Jack Lemmon from "The China Syndrome," a whistle-blower who wakes up too late to realize his whole life has been a sham.

It’s Clooney’s best and most coherent work on the big screen, and should get him a Best Actor nomination and lots of rave reviews.

"Syriana" is not always easy to follow. Sometimes I felt like I needed a study guide. But Gaghan has made such an engrossing film that you can actually suspend disbelief and just go with it. Once you’re in, you’re in, too. I don’t know if it will make money or be a Best Picture candidate, but "Syriana" is the most intelligent movie of 2005 so far, and incredibly satisfying.

One note though: I would change that poster and ad showing a blind-folded, bearded man. It’s a huge turn-off. It looks like a torture documentary or a prisoner of war saga. Warner Bros. would do well to sell "Syriana" as a thriller soap opera with intrigue, a la "Three Days of the Condor," and make sure to put Damon and Peet’s pictures in there with Clooney’s.

Clooney, you might like to know, also told me after the screening that the recent blow up he had in London was considerably different than the way it was portrayed in the British press and consequently, in our tabloids.

"It was just a guy who was a jerk," he said of the photographer who cornered him in an alley. "I thought about hitting him, but I didn’t."

Isaac Hayes Leads 10-Star Memphis Blues Ball

For years, Pat Tigrett, Memphis’ Empress of Entertainment, Fundraising and Good Times, had asked me to get down to her city for the annual Blues Ball.

This year, thanks to encouragement from my other Memphian pals Bridget and Phil Trenary (he’s the CEO of the very successful Pinnacle Airlines) and Memphis Film Commissioner Lynn Sitler, I finally did it.

A group of us — film producer Beverly Camhe plus Barbara Orbison and her two musician sons Alex and Roy Kelton Orbison — made the overnight trek. Now all I can say is that Pat should be doing all the black tie galas in New York and Los Angeles. This was one time the reality outdid the hype!

Pat, you should know, is the beautiful young (50ish) widow of famed Memphis toy inventor and entrepreneur John Burton Tigrett, whom Al Gore compared to Willy Wonka in his 1999 eulogy of the 85-year-old giant. She’s also the stepmother of House of Blues/Hard Rock Café founder Isaac Tigrett.

But in Memphis and beyond, Pat is considered a force of nature — a wedding dress designer, party planner, fund-raiser and more. Once she put her mind to raising money for the Memphis Charitable Foundation, Pat showed the city they could be as cool and competitive as the best charities on either coast.

The Foundation supports a number of other charities including St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, The Smithsonian Rock 'n Soul Museum, The International Children's Heart Foundation and Variety Children's Charities. It also raises money for musical education in the Memphis schools so that the city’s distinctive heritage will continue.

Tigrett is so popular that even the mayor wears a button that says “Pat Tigrett for Mayor.”

She dressed up the Pyramid — a huge and controversial edifice that sits on the banks of the Mississippi River and which her late husband helped pioneer from development to construction —with miles and miles of draped metallic colored mylar and hundreds of clear white helium balloons.

She made an ugly building shimmer, which is quite an accomplishment. Imagine that this building, according to its Web site, is 32 stories high, has a footprint larger than six football fields covering 360,000 square feet and can seat 20,000 for basketball games.

Yet, once Tigrett and her team were finished with it, The Pyramid seemed like an intimate blues club!

Two thousand people showed their appreciation by pouring in at $500 a head. This thing is so popular that strict IDs had to be handed out because party crashers find it the most desirable ticket of the year.

And why not? Tigrett set up two stages, one at either end of the massive conference center. Then she put on a continuous R&B/blues dance party with Eddie Floyd, the Bar Kays, Tommy Lee Williams (the similarly talented and famously illegitimate son of Jerry Lee Lewis), Beale Street sensation Ruby Wilson and a host of others.

Jerry Lee himself was in the audience, as was Stax Records’ Queen of Memphis Soul Miss Carla Thomas and a host of legendary music figures including George Stevens — who emceed — plus Al Bell (he wrote “I’ll Take You There” for the Staples Singer), producer Bobby Manuel and the great Billy Swan (“I Can Help”).

Before we even got to the pop and gospel, former NAACP executive director Dr. Benjamin Hooks came to get an award for his work at the Middle Baptist Church.

I am proud to say that among the musicians who were honored with him was Ronnie Williams, the extraordinary, beloved Stax organist who made a memorable cameo in a documentary I co-produced called “Only the Strong Survive.”

I don’t think Dr. Hooks was still there, though, when magisterial Isaac Hayes — the featured star — segued from “Shaft” into his “South Park” number “Salty Chocolate Balls.” Oh no, I do not.

Isaac was all grins, too, and not just for getting one over on the more conservative members of the audience. He and his new wife are expecting a baby in April — it will be his 12th child, and his first in 18 years!

But that’s what’s so fun about the Blues Ball is all these formally dressed folks in Memphis-style black tie run back and forth from one end of the arena to another so they can dance to the music.

And in between, the beautifully set tables sport huge helpings of Memphis barbeque — fried chicken, mac 'n' cheese, coleslaw, the whole deal. It’s like the most expensive picnic in the world.

And it wasn’t just Stax on the menu. There was a lot of reference to Sun Records with the appearance of late founder Sam Phillips’ sons Knox and Jerry. Stax was represented by the daughter and son-in-law of founder Estelle Axton.

There were plenty of Memphis music mavens there, including the organizer of a now “lost” classic 1985 album called “Class of ‘55” that featured Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis (June Carter Cash, Dave Edmunds, Marty Stuart, Wynnona Judd, Dan Penn, “Cowboy” Jack Clement and John Fogerty are also featured on this rare gem produced by Chips Moman).

What a night! And then, of course, Tigrett and the Trenarys had to take us to two more late-night Memphis institutions: the dance club Raiford’s, and of course, Earnest and Hazel’s, a former real brothel that now boasts the city’s best burgers, Barry White on the soundsystem and what I think must be a rigged pool table!

And Memphis keeps going: if the Orbisons and Camhe hadn’t pulled me out of there late in the afternoon, I’d still be with the magnificent Carla Thomas and our pals Chilli and Veronica Chisem at Celebrity’s on Beale Street (I did manage to fit in time for one plate of ribs at the Rum Boogie, however). That’s where a wild blues show was going on to support James Austin, the 35-year leader of the Platters, who’s been diagnosed with cancer but is rockin’ on!

Russell ThompkinsStylistics performed, plus the Beez, Chilli’s group The Climates and a bunch of very talented local musicians. I managed to get out of there before Hayes showed up, otherwise I would still be in Memphis, my favorite city in the US of A other than New York!

And this, let me tell you, was a random weekend in mid-November for Memphis. The city is booming! If you don’t know about it already, plan a trip for the annual Memphis in May festival. It’s one of this country’s hidden treasures!