Okay, so we don't have a Chinatown in Phoenix. But that doesn't mean you can't find delicious and authentic Chinese food here. You just have to know where to look. Some of the city's best Cantonese restaurants might be hiding in plain sight, and if you're on the hunt for some harder to find cuisines (dongbei cai, anyone?), we might have some of those for you, too.
From incredible dim sum to a one-of-a-kind dinner show, here are the best Chinese restaurants in Phoenix.
Chou's Kitchen: If you know where to look, it's not hard to find good Chinese food in the Valley. But finding another place that serves northeastern Chinese cuisine like Chou's Kitchen in Chandler? Well, good luck. This humble restaurant has plenty to offer on its menu of unique dongbei cai delights and specializes specifically in doughy dumplings. We like to start with an order of the xiaolongbao (soup dumplings). Chou's version offers a delicate wrapper that holds in a flavorful meat filling and a mouthful of precious juices. Continue your meal with a bubbling hot pot or an order of the cold noodles, an spicy dish that's actually served at room temperature. (910 N. Alma School Road, Chandler, 480-821-2888)
King Wah Express: You might know King Wah Express as Lucky's King Wah, but either way you refer to it, it means the same thing: flavorful, authentic Cantonese fare in a low-key Glendale strip mall. You may have heard about the chef's special at Lucky's, which entails sitting down and letting the chef cook you something delicious and suited to your allergy/spice tolerance. That's definitely the way to go at King Wah, but if you're not up for mystery, try out the sizzling, bubbling short rib and eggplant hot pot. Even the fried rice is the best you'll find in town. (4306 W. Northern Ave., Glendale, 623-937-3960)
China Magic Noodle House: It's true, many people come to China Magic Noodle House for the show. But that doesn't mean that the food — noodles and non-noodle dishes included — isn't top-notch. You'll watch as the talented chefs stretch and sling and toss and chop fresh dough into noodle form before it arrives at your table. You can choose from five types of noodles to be served in soups, fried, or smothered in sauces. We particularly enjoy the shaved noodles, which are hand-cut from a piece of noodle dough. The thick, short noodles make for a perfect foundation for the saucy dishes. (2015 N. Dobson Road, Chandler, 480-786-8002, www.chinamagicnoodle.com)
China Chili: Downtowners know to go to China Chili on any holiday that typically closes other restaurants in the area. It's why it's packed full of people, with an hour wait or more, on Christmas Eve. Luckily, if you go at other times, you won't be met with such a wait, but there will be a steady buzz of folks dining around Lazy Susans and sharing plates of yu shiang chicken and salt-and-pepper pork chops. We like to start with a big bowl of meaty West Lake soup. Fair warning: Even during off times, the service at China Chili tends to be on the slow side, but good things come to those who wait. (302 E. Flower St., 602-266-4463, www.chinachilirestaurant.com)
New Hong Kong: If you drive on East Indian School Road near 24th Street, it's hard to miss the giant neon sign that reads "Hong Kong Restaurant" and advertises an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. But don't let the old-school appearance fool you: This Central Phoenix spot is a go-to spot for top-quality Cantonese cuisine. The family-run New Hong Kong comes courtesy of Chinese chef Jian Yu and has both an American menu and a Chinese one. Smart diners will make sure they order off the latter. That's where you'll find authentic options like flavor-packed hot pots, pigs feet, and more. Less adventurous diners can opt for knockout dishes including the black pepper beef, salt-and-pepper pork, and West Lake soup. (2328 E. Indian School Road, 602-954-9118)
King Wong: There's arguably no sweeter family in the Chinese take-out game than the one that runs King Wong. We love supporting their family business, and the restaurant's absolutely gigantic delivery area, cheap deals, and monster portions make it that much easier to adore. Twice-cooked pork (double the tasty breading!) is a favorite on lazy nights in, and one entrée-size order can supply three filling meals. Call in your order and pick it up, or, if you live pretty much anywhere in East Phoenix (including parts of downtown and Arcadia), you can have King Wong bring the food to your door. (2545 N. 32nd St., 602-954-8088, www.kingwongaz.com)
Nee House: For those who live in the North Phoenix neighborhood around Nee House, this restaurant is a blessing. Amid chains and fast food spots, Nee House offers a solid menu of remarkably good, authenic Chinese dishes, with a few Americanized entrees as well. If you're feeling adventurous, go for something from the sea. The restaurant offers everything from sea cucumber to whole lobsters, which will be plucked from the tanks at the back of the dining room and prepared however you wish. Talk about fresh. (13843 N. Tatum Blvd., 602-992-3338)
Asian Café Express: Asian Café Express is an institution of legit Hong Kong-style cuisine in Phoenix. If you're one of those naysayers who say you can't find this kind of food in the Valley, simmer down and check out this eatery off Main Street and Dobson in Mesa. You'll find a seemingly endless menu of dinner combos. But don't be intimidated; just crack open the big old menu and point at pretty much anything — you're sure to get the best of the best. For soup lovers, though, you absolutely have to try the preserved pickle and shredded pork soup with ho fun noodles. The fatty, decadent broth, hunks of pork, and thin noodles may be the key to happiness. (1911 W. Main St., Ste. 3, Mesa, 480-668-5910, www.asiancafeexpress.com)
Great Wall Cuisine: Do you know how we know Great Wall Cuisine has authentic dim sum? It has chicken feet. And they're delicious. The rest of the dim sum spread also is impressive, with towering piles of noodles, crispy egg rolls, and dumplings of all varieties. The restaurant attracts a large Sunday-morning crowd, so be prepared to wait — or visit on Saturday, when there are fewer diners. The restaurant's regular dinner and lunch services are worthwhile too, with a giant menu of à la carte dishes, from Americanized favorites to more authentic fare. (5057 N. 35th Ave., 602-973-1112)
Wahsun: We won't sugarcoat it: Wahsun does not wow in terms of ambiance. If you're looking for fancy décor and background music, go elsewhere. However, if you're looking for an array of freshly made sauces with explosive flavor smothering perfectly prepared veggies, tofu, and meat served in homey dishes, you've come to the right place. If you're not brought to your knees by Wahsun's roast duck, which is only $8 for a generous portion of half duck, you're made of stone. Seriously, that duck, which is spiced perfectly with heaps of Chinese five spice on its crispy skin, is a showstopper. (8056 N. 19th Ave., 602-995-4606, www.wahsunrestaurant.com)
It's 2014 and high time you got some new music into your playlist — seriously.
It'll help that Phoenix's music scene has plenty of fresh jams and brand-new tunes to offer, as there's an overflow of gifted and prolific musicians cranking out sounds.
Since many local acts will make waves, turn heads, and get listens this year, we're highlighting 14 that you simply must hear.
Think of it as a mixtape shared between friends. And it contains talent drawn from the various musical milieus in and around Phoenix — from up-and-coming rappers to weirdo indie rockers to folk acts found at house shows.
These are the 14 bands you owe it to yourself to check out in 2014.
Celebration Guns' songs take listeners on an ambient indie-pop journey, with fuzzy guitars zigging and intricate bass lines zagging over busy drumming and unexpected turns from a toy piano or xylophone.
Evoking the found sonic objects sprinkled throughout its songs, the foursome (assembled in August 2013 from several dismantled projects) goes against the grain. To wit: The band's most recent album, Quitter, and its upcoming self-titled split EP with fellow locals Twin Ponies are available on cassette tape.
"I think there's a sense of nostalgia that comes with cassette tapes that makes me really appreciate them," says vocalist/guitarist Justin Weir. "It reminds me of a time when I wasn't overwhelmed with a flash drive of 18,000 songs from hundreds of bands I never quite feel connected to. Instead, I had to rely on whatever cassette tapes I could get my hands on, and when every new band sounded novel and fresh and worth holding onto."
Celebration Guns, drawing comparisons to Minus the Bear and Maps & Atlases, hope listeners are inspired to hold onto their music and tunes about awkward dating experiences and lost loves.
"These songs are written by a jaded person trying to find credibility in taking the optimistic approach to life and love and whatever happens between," Weir says, insisting that tones of dating disenchantment are balanced by hints of optimism. And when bells, accordions, and trumpets permeate your melodies, even the most heartbreaking lyrics hit a happy note.
The band, which includes guitarist Chris Blanco, bassist Ryan Miller, and drummer Timothy O'Brien, finds plenty of love, however, when it plays shows in town. Celebration Guns strive to perform in an array of venues, be it nightclub, house show, or Urban Outfitters, and usually on bills as diverse as the collection of musical instruments you'll find onstage during the band's set. — Nicki Escudero
West Phoenix's Andy Warpigs is on a one-man folk-punk mission to infiltrate and influence every pocket of Arizona counterculture — and the out-of-control coffeehouse cowboy just might succeed.
In 2013, he popped up seemingly everywhere playing acoustic guitar and ukulele with a backing band of whoever happened to be standing around him.
Warpigs' self-described "heavily improvised art-punk music" has made its mark at benefit concerts, art shows, comic book conventions, comedy gigs, literally any venue willing to let him play. He became a mainstay at Lawn Gnome Publishing's Live Music Tuesday, as well as a regular conspirator at Sister Lip's neverending Monday night residency at Long Wong's in Tempe.
His bizarro originals and eclectic covers are meant to reach out and grab "freaks, geeks, punks, nerds, squatters, stoners, and thought criminals," according to the liner notes of his debut album, Folk Punk Yourself.
And after linking with local label 56th Street Records, Warpigs hopes to step up his performance schedule and add songs to his repertoire. Some of Warpigs' original songs include "Drown My Baby" (off his latest album), "Love Is Like a Stabbing Pain in the Dick," and an ode to profanity called "N-Bombs and C-Bombs." At his shows, Warpigs also plays the Ramones classic "The KKK Took My Baby Away" and "Hybrid Moments" by The Misfits. But whether he is singing a cover or an original, it always is in his amazingly soft — yet intensely punk — voice.
Warpigs mixes absurd lyrics and silly stage antics with the look of a homeless meth-addict cowboy, and it all adds up to a great show.
His eccentricity even has gained the onetime solo artist a respectable backing band, featuring Jelly Roll Jenkin (a.k.a. Jorge Garcia, formerly of Los Fukn Ramirez), Jackson Bollocks of Nerdzerkr, and Justin White, formerly of Andrew Jackson Jihad.
When asked whether Andy Warpigs is the name of his solo act or the entire band, Warpigs says it's both: "It's the same crap that Alice Cooper has been pulling for decades."
The musician is unapologetic about his appearance and his music. "I'm not overly concerned about anyone who finds my music offensive," Warpigs says. "Fuck them." — Jeff Moses
Without a frenzied manic flip side, melancholy is meaningless. Luckily, Tempe's Factories balance upbeat with downbeat on their moody yet delirious synthpop.
Their debut LP, Together (an underappreciated release from 2013), moves through the somber solitude of a Ben Gibbard-like psyche with the sensibilities of Blonde Redhead and Tycho.
All three band members, married couple Bryan and Audra Marscovetra (guitar and keyboards, respectively) and beat specialist Mike Duffy, trade vocal duties, further fleshing out Factories' tone.
And the live performance, complemented by colorful fluorescent lights scattered across the stage, isn't so morose that you can't dance to it. It's the nautical broadband of Interpol with enough optimism to keep you propelled.
Tracks like "Zombi" and "Story Like Yours" blend poetry with nuance, to say nothing of the band's wildly popular — on KWSS FM, at least, which counts to us — single "Canada," which builds architectural beats (courtesy of Duffy, an actual architect by day) into a nostalgic downward spiral.
This isn't to say the music is emo (or even all that depressing), but Factories' introspective side — courtesy of Bryan's background as a former English student — definitely is the band's biggest strength.
Yet without that dance-y sensibility, it risks becoming self-centered, a problem many bands encounter by swinging too far to one side.
With so much precise momentum taking them through 2013, this year should be even more robust for Factories. — Troy Farah
Darkly intoxicating and atmospheric doom-metal concoctions are the specialty of experimental instrumental duo Tempel.
A collaboration between guitarist/keyboardist/engineer Ryan Wenzel and drummer Rich Corle, the band mixes such murky heavy metal variants as death, black, and sludge into its sonic alchemy, layering sounds from each genre to create something refreshing and captivating for fans of many types of music.
Metalheads may love Tempel for its double bass and grainy guitar solos, while fans of reggae and hip-hop might appreciate the band's music for its ambient atmospherics, skeletal drums, and chiming guitar embellishments.
Tempel formed in 2003 as a larger ensemble but eventually dwindled to just Wenzel and Corle, and this skeleton-crew approach has proved to be more than enough to maintain Tempel's epic instrumental metal soundscape. The duo digitally self-released its debut, On the Steps of the Temple, in 2012 before getting signed in late 2013 to L.A. metal label Prosthetic Records, which re-released the album in January.
The masterful songwriting achieved the band's vision: to lead listeners on a dark trip through golden skies, over angular mountains, and though twisted brambles to reach the temples depicted on the album's cover art. There's nary a lyric, but the abundance of instrumental character and storytelling in Tempel's music commands its own kind of attention.
The six-song, hourlong album is like the soundtrack to a psychological thriller. Opener "Mountain" has crushing tones, double bass, and beguiling rhythms (reminiscent of vintage Enslaved), while "Final Years" is devoted to melodic, chilling, mournful bliss. And then there is "The Mist That Shrouds the Peaks," which captures the creepiness of Stephen King's The Mist (the novella, not the movie).
Although there's no word yet about its next album, Tempel is definitely a local act to watch and hear. — Lauren Wise
THE HOLY COAST
The self-described "electronic shoegaze" created by The Holy Coast might be minimalistic, but it packs an emotional punch. It drives the group's decidedly moody but accessible electronica-powered songs and makes the trio of keyboardist Keith Walker, vocalist/guitarist Brett Davis, and laptop whiz Braden McCall unlike any other band in the Valley.
The Holy Coast is distinctive not only in its genre but also because of the sheer scope of the music, which is grandly atmospheric, and profoundly elegiac, often tackling many primal forces.
It's been said that all art pertains to love, beauty, or death. All three are fodder for The Holy Coast, as tracks like "The Space We Haunt," "Hands Down," and "Until the End" overflow with solemn, wistful feelings about troubled relationships, bad decisions, major regrets, and the beginning and the ending of life.
Heavy stuff, no? Then it shouldn't be surprising that Walker cites the melancholic music of such bands as New Order and Sonic Youth in a video on The Holy Coast's website.
That's not to say that the band's a downer, as hopefulness imbues the music. "Until the End" essentially is about making a new start, a sentiment echoed in its striking music video, which depicts a distraught cubicle drone making a cathartic road trip.
The Holy Coast has been distilling emotions into profound music since its founding in 2012 by Walker, an Irish expat, and Davis. The act started as a duo but later expanded into a trio after recruiting McCall, a member of electro-clash band Dead Wildlife last year.[page]
"[Braden] heard some of the stuff and loved it so he came on board with Brett and I, and the three of us began to dial into the material," Walker says.
And The Holy Coast will continue dialing in 2014, including releasing new songs recorded at Mesa's esteemed Flying Blanket Studios that is sure to be just as poignant and beautiful as their other material. — Benjamin Leatherman
Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community resident and rapper MC Optimal isn't a new artist. But it's hard to deny that 2014 looks like it's going to be his year. He's recently signed with MURS' 316 label, and his rhymes in a cypher for the popular TeamBackPack site in January signal an artist with more than a little buzz.
Optimal's verses for TBP cypher, hands down the most brutal of the bunch, demonstrate an MC with a firm grasp on violent wordplay and a metaphysical yen. Songs like the gentle "Good Hair" on his SoundCloud juxtapose wildly with his verses. He isn't afraid of poetry, and he isn't afraid to employ some creative destruction.
Optimal, born Guy Goodwin, has been a staple in local hip-hop for more than a decade, coming up from open mics in downtown Phoenix, such as at Majerle's 9 Lounge. It was there he connected with Tempe and Phoenix-based hip-hop artists like Brad B, the Insects, and Foundation. And it was his decade-long connection with "his homie" Foundation that brought Optimal to the attention of Tucson/Los Angeles-based rapper MURS.
"[Foundation] had mentioned my name to him and has always believed that I deserved a shot," Optimal says.
Clearly, MURS agreed. He signed Optimal to his newly minted 316 Label in late 2013. He describes his forthcoming 316 debut, titled Foundation Presents: Optimal, as "high-power," with "a lot of wordplay." Foundation's beats lean toward jazz, something Optimal says feels instinctual.
"Usually, jazz has always been my main foundation to spit lyrics over, due to the '90s East Coast style," he says, noting early inspirations like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, MadCap, Common, and Souls of Mischief. But that doesn't mean Optimal is afraid to branch out, which aligns him with the multi-faceted styles of his 316 label mates Jabee and Cash Lansky.
"Over the years, I've opened my mind to other genres of music," Optimal says. "Basically, if I feel it right away, I'm digging it and aiming to build something with it." — Jason P. Woodbury
No Volcano is a mere eight months old, but don't let the band's relative infancy fool you. These fellows have been, and will be, around for a while. It's a serious band for serious times, but one of their most endearing qualities is that they don't take themselves as seriously as they do their love of music and local Mexican food.
Never afraid to expose audiences to his fantastic wit and masterful command of both chorus and verse, singer/guitar player Jim Andreas has one of those voices that sticks to your ear like a big ball of wax. He's fronted bands in the Valley for close to 30 years, most notably Phoenix fave Trunk Federation, but also '80s noise punk outfit Bootbeast Carnival. Drummer and fellow Trunk Federation alum Chris Kennedy is one of the most talented musicians here, and his work with No Volcano proves it.
Joined by bassist Jake Sevier, who played a similar role in Letdownright (which featured both Andreas and Kennedy, as well as local mover and shaker Kimber Lanning), and guitar/organ maestro Jeremy Randall (whom you may remember from Colorstore), No Volcano is each musician's best effort to date. The interplay between Kennedy and Sevier, who have been a rhythm section for nine years across multiple bands, is Vulcan-mind-meld instinctual, pounding, and profound.
Although quiet in person, Randall is expertly noisy on stage. He adds serious guitar texture to No Volcano's well-crafted songs, in addition to some killer organ riffs, key to the multi-layered approach both new and old fans will recognize. Adept with both a slide on his finger and a pedal board full of noise makers, Randall's intricate yet deliciously dark and skronky guitar lines weave in and out of an airtight rhythm section and dance with Jim's captivating vocals.
The band, like many of their peers, has difficulty categorizing itself.
"This project, I think we all have wanted it to be a little heavier, more fun to see live," Andreas says, and he's not wrong.
Compared to their previous efforts, No Volcano is much darker, heavier, and grittier. Imagine early-'70s Rolling Stones mixing it up with early-'90s Flaming Lips in a dark alley while, somewhere, Lou Reed smiles like a proud godfather. — Tom Reardon
Travis James not only doesn't care about convention, he strives to disrupt it as much as possible. As such, the local musician is known just as much around town for his stick-it-to-the-man antics as he is for his raucous punk music.
The frontman for Travis James and the Acrimonious Assembly of Arsonists has committed rebellious acts such as taking over downtown Phoenix for an urban game of Capture the Flag with 100 friends, as well as organizing punk shows at permit-less spots like underpasses and squat houses.
"I prefer to surround myself with, and appeal to, trouble-causing creatures who value reckless abandon over being accommodating for people's sensibilities or respecting surroundings," James says.
Now, he and the Arsonists have buckled down (a bit) to record material for an album scheduled for release this year that's appropriately titled Over Dressed & Under Arrest, on which James promises to have "at least something for everyone to get upset about — that, and more piano."
James and bandmates Aaron Hjalmarson and Mark Sunman, both of punkgrass band The Haymarket Squares, promise tunes like "Special Delivery," about sending letterbombs to authority figures, and an autobiographical track of James' called "Broken Kids and Bad Friends."
James says, "While I'm not necessarily opposed to the fact most people make boring music and have boring lives, I try to make sure my music and my life make each other more interesting. Otherwise, neither is worth it for me."
When he's not concocting ways to disrupt the live-music scene, James is crafting a 40-minute, 12-song punk rock musical about opposing authority and society scheduled out later this year.
He promises scenes of fire-setting, blood-spilling, "and other assorted bits of charming idiocy reflecting on the psycho-social implications of existential pointlessness."
He's also planning an acoustic punk show in a storm drain this year. — N.E.
Isn't music sometimes just about having fun? Although it might be an arguable point in the more cynical circles among us, fun seems the overriding raison d'être within the Tempe music scene and especially with local band Numb Bats.
The post-punk/pop/surf trio, which includes onetime North Dakota members Mo Neuharth and Emily Hobeheidar, will engage even the most austere concertgoer with their cheeky, distortion-filled anthems. Plus, they sell T-shirts emblazoned with their band name spelled out on a doughnut.
Numb Bats don't sound like North Dakota, but they do share the latter band's attitude of wielding both fun and candor in their music. Not only are their melodies catchy, but their lyrics distinguish them with quips like those found on "Angry Woman."
"I got an angry woman / She wakes me up every morning / But I don't want to be woken up / And I don't want to go to work / I just want to do what I want to do," sing Neuharth and Hobeheidar in unison after the song starts with spacey surf-rock riffs and peppy drum beats backed by bassist Isaac Parker.
Hobeheidar and Neuharth may blanch at the comparison, but Numb Bats' dual lead vocals invoke female-fronted indie rock acts like Le Tigre. Sarcastic (but sometimes serious) lyrics and sound effects accompany the fast, ecstatic songs.
Some people might compare Numb Bats to popular pop group Best Coast, but the Tempe band is more versatile than that. With songs like "Fuck It," they make fans out of first-time listeners, from the guitar and bass riffs that cause damage in unison to vocals fighting for space over each other (sometimes incomprehensibly at certain moments) with lyrics like "I don't want to go to pay my bills / Fuck it!"
Here's hoping a full Numb Bats' release comes out this year, since they've been performing new unreleased songs at their recent shows. — Yezmin Villarreal
Local MC Kyle Collins hit 2014 running. The 24-year-old has a new music video, "Stupid Shit," full of satirical jabs at the music industry and featuring a comedic vibe, and a new mixtape, Sincerely, that he dropped earlier this year.
And with the buzz he's generated lately (not to mention his much-anticipated official album The Manhattan Project later this year), all these projects are expected to be a huge deal, as is Collins himself.
The Office Space-inspired visuals of the music video for "Stupid Shit" provide a comedic angle to a topic that Collins is very serious about: putting stereotypical rap clichés — such as excessive twerking, guns, and money — on blast.
Something else he's serious about is making it to the next level of the rap game. Since debuting in January, "Stupid Shit," which features beats crafted by Phoenix hip-hop producer Qux, has received airplay on 101.1 The Beat and gotten love from RapDose.
That's not the only coup for Collins, a member of local pop/hip-hop group Weird Is the New Cool, as he opened for Pusha T earlier this year at Club Red.[page]
Local legend Irin Daniels (better known as RocaDolla or IROC) has bigger and brighter plans for the rising star. Daniels, considered by many the "Dr. Dre of Arizona hip-hop," has had a hand in helping numerous artists (such as Lifted, Trap, and Pokafase) gain success and hopes to duplicate the results by taking Collins to their level and maybe beyond. — Jaron Ikner
William Currier has a knack for putting things together. The Tempe resident records as Brain A, piecing together bits of lo-fi bedroom pop, hip-hop, and experimental noise uniting the elements in a psychedelic haze. The fusion is seamless, made all the more impressive by Currier's production techniques.
"I have never used a computer yet for any of my pieces," he says. "I play guitar, bass, organ, keyboard, a drum machine, a sampler, turntable, and record the vocals in an assortment of ways."
Currier started out assembling Brain A's pop-art compositions on a four-track cassette recorder before moving on to an eight-track CD-R deck.
The Early Amputees: Volume 1, the first in a series of three "Early Amputees" releases that Currier has planned, demonstrates how his approach works: seven short snippets, opening with "Masters," in which Currier sings cryptically, "No masters / Only servants / Burn the contract and its purpose" over swirling noise. "In Warm," he raps/sings over a stuttering distorted funk tune. "More Chalk" sounds like sludge metal as hip-hop while "Futurists" sounds like a short-circuiting MP3 player or a record played at the wrong speed. Or both at once.
"The overall concept of 'Early Amputees' is rooted in the shortness of the song structures and me testing myself to see how much energy I can channel into a small amount of time," Currier says.
Currier doesn't plan on taking Brain A live until summer, focusing instead on recording and enjoying the freedom offered by Bandcamp, where he publishes his work.
"In the future, I plan on [incorporating] more traditional styles for projects and using more modern equipment," Currier says. "But for this year, it's this solid set of lo-fi treats from my back pages." — J.P.W.
PHOENIX AFROBEAT ORCHESTRA
Pop quiz: How many people can you cram on a single stage before its structural integrity is at risk? In true MythBusters fashion, the Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra are in the business of finding out the answer to this question.
Fourteen members make up this local supergroup, including dudes and dudettes from at least 20 other bands, truly defining that "orchestra" portion of the act's name. But they won't be rocking Bach or Wagner. They instead will offer an exotic mixture of world music, electronic dance tunes, funk, prog rock, samba, and, of course, Afrobeat.
As you may have noticed, dancing is not Phoenix's strong point. In fact, most audiences kind of suck when it comes to cutting a rug at shows. Luckily, members of PAO (rhymes with "wow") weave tempestuous and tropical-inspired influences into a potent brew that tends to induce ass-shaking and rug-cutting at their gigs, where dancing practically is de rigueur and crowds are getting larger. In fact, the group's fifth show drew an unheard of 200 eager, disco-ready fans both young and old.
Orchestra members are refining the covers they perform but also are prepping some original cuts for later this spring. PAO strives to bring more than Afrocentric grooves to our dusty, desert sprawl. As their Facebook page states, they are "committed to the global unification of all mammals through musical trance." — T.F.
CHEMICALS OF DEMOCRACY
A performance by local hard rockers must be like being at ground zero of a nuclear explosion, thanks to the band's blast of brain-melting metal.
And one of the most satisfying aspects of a CoD show is that you can get a complete understanding of their style, influences, and strengths from just one or two songs. It's just put right out there: an in-your-face onslaught of high-energy heavy instrumentals meet radio-ready rock vocals.
The triple-guitar element brings some of the band's strong influences to light, from the punishing thrash riffs reminiscent of Metallica and the dueling ascending guitars that recall Pantera to the smoldering melodic leads trademarked by Iron Maiden.
However, Chemicals of Democracy brings its own modern approach. Along with the catchy choruses, surprise hooks, and vocals (think Volbeat's Michael Poulsen meets Metallica's James Hetfield), it's easy to see why they've played all over the globe. In fact, the band has gigged alongside Saxon, Sister Sin, and Anvil, to name a few, and has even played two Hammerfests in the UK.[page]
Founded in 2007 by vocalist/lead guitarist Darrin Richards, bassist J.Q., and drummer Greg Paradis, the band went through some transitions and was rounded out to five members in 2012, with Ryan Maloney replacing Paradis on drums, guitarist Sammy Damaxx, guitarist/vocalist Scott Allan, and Darwin Scott replacing J.Q. on bass.
In 2013, CoD released its full-length debut, American Scream, produced by British-based Grammy-nominated producer Chris Tsangarides (Judas Priest, Depeche Mode, Concrete Blonde). While the album is full of energetic hard rock and heavy breakdowns, an element of classic rock is present as well.
The band isn't taking a break anytime soon, as it's finishing it second album and plans to dish out rock 'n' roll ordnance around the world later this year, including a potential tour of the UK. — L.W.
Leonardo DiCapricorn is one of those clever band names that looks great on a flyer and is catchy enough to stick in your brain. The same goes for the band's music, a pastiche of nerdcore, punk, and rap with just a dash of metal that's both hooky and cute.
There's a geeky spirit running through the band's embryonic sounds, which is fitting, considering that frontman/bassist Damon Dominguez, percussionist Carlos Courtney, and guitarist Brandon Frederickson are former members of Greenway High School's drumline pursuing science degrees at ASU.
They've also been known to dress in nerd-wear at shows: Dominguez stuck out at PHX FMLY Fest earlier this year in his Hawaiian shirt and old-school ball cap. All three bandmates went high-concept and rocked white button-down shirts and ties at a release party for Rubber Brother Records' Puppy Love compilation album, which Leonardo DiCapricorn appeared on.
But the way they dress is only part of their appeal, as the band members also carry themselves distinctly, like confident nerds, and their between-song banter with the crowd is plenty sarcastic and pretty hilarious.
Since its debut last year at a local house show, Leonardo DiCapricorn has jelled quickly (probably because they all live together in the band's practice space). The band has built up a decent repertoire of songs ("Dexter," "Galifianakis," "Angsty Song," "J-No," and "Red Panda") on many geeky, satirical topics that have quickly become crowd favorites, as has their unrecorded "4Loko Dolphin."
The band's goals are modest: getting signed to Rubber Brother Records, recording a seven-song EP, and (per a dare from a fourth roommate) playing at least one out-of-state show. We predict they'll be successful with the latter one, since geeks exist everywhere. — J.M.
Artists have always looked to nature for inspiration, but this time around, it’s literal. Vision Gallery’s latest exhibition “Flourish: Artworks Inspired by Our Gardens” is a collection of natural, floral, and botanical artworks that pay homage to the things we grow in the cultivated spaces of our world.
The exhibition features work from over 50 Arizona artists, including a few familiar faces like Constance McBride and Nicole Royse. The art is not confined to one medium; there will be textiles, ceramics, photography, and mixed media works on display.
“Flourish: Artworks Inspired by Our Gardens” will be on view at Vision Gallery, 10 East Chicago Street in Chandler, 25 through August 30. An artist reception will be held on Saturday, July 26 from 2 to 4 p.m. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free to the public. For more information, visit www.visiongallery.org or call 480-782-2695.
Welcome to a life of mooching, meetings, and trying not to get caught making out with your aides.
Imagine, in a moment of suspended disbelief, that your job pays 174 grand a year. And comes with a $1.3 million expense account. And a staff of 18 Ivy League yes-men whose sole duty is to bray loud and wide about the miracle that is you — when they're not babysitting your kids or fetching your dry cleaning, that is.
You get free travel to anywhere on the globe. A private dining room and a private gym replete with swimming pool, sauna, and steam bath.
Best of all, you're only required to show up for the equivalent of four months per year.
Former congressman Tom Tancredo had this life for a decade. By the time it was over, he'd caught that affliction known to anyone who hates his job: a fear of Monday mornings. "As I drove to work, I'd get a knot in my stomach, and it would just start to grow," Tancredo says.
8. Think of your day as a Bataan Death March of meetings.
The meeting. It's the most nefarious act in the American workplace, an assault of trudging monologues and plans never to be fulfilled.
Yet this is your life as a legislator. Meeting. After meeting. After meeting.
Your mornings begin with committee hearings. But since most members serve on four to seven different committees, "you can't just go to one hearing and sit," says former representative Steve Bartlett (R-Texas).
After all, the line outside your office began forming at 8 a.m. There are staffers, constituents, and captains of industry all wanting . . . meetings. Never mind the 12,000 registered lobbyists, who may suddenly lack the stamina to write a check if they can't get a sit-down.
So you knock them out in breakneck succession, with barely time to lob pleasantries and get down to business. "Everything in a congressman's life is scheduled within 15-minute increments, and oftentimes you're double-booked," says Bartlett, who subsequently became mayor of Dallas before heading a Wall Street advocacy group.
Tancredo's day would usually begin at 6 a.m., lest his commute turn into a grinding two-hour pilgrimage courtesy of the D.C. rush hour. His meetings would run for the next 10 hours. If the Colorado Republican wanted to speak on the House floor, he would still be working at 11 p.m., when a slot finally opened on the schedule.
Yes, it could all be a heady experience. "Powerful people beg for your vote," says one Capitol Hill staffer. "Ego-wise, it's an orgy at the Playboy Mansion."
It can also be enriching. Tancredo warmly recalls the deluge of information available nowhere else. "Every day you learned more shit about more shit," he says. "It was like a college education every couple of weeks."
The downside is that all this activity is usually for naught.
After all, this is a job of rigorous self-interest. Passing meaningful legislation only jeopardizes your survival, since it places your vote on a tee, there to be hammered by character-assassinating ads in the next election. So rather than act today, it's always best to speak of intended heroics in distant battles to come.
That means the most common vote you'll take is to rename a post office somewhere, which amounts to 20 percent of all legislation passed. According to former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyoming), it's now all about running out the clock. "It's simply how do you stall until you get through the next election so you don't lose seats."
7. You will attend many parties. They will blow.
Washington is a party town. Bartlett often went to four a night, 12 months a year.
Yet D.C.'s definition of "partying" hews closer to the 1870s sense of the word. You will not lose yourself on the dance floor. You will not wolf shots of pomegranate vodka and end up sharing a bong with a ventriloquist named Renaldo at 4 a.m.
What you will do is shmooze and be shmoozed at dinners, receptions, and fundraisers, where the most unrefined moment will involve a woman wearing pastel out of season.
"The typical reception was about a 15-minute in-and-out," Bartlett says. "Most bartenders would prepare 'the congressional drink' — which is usually orange juice — as soon as you come in."
Yes, there's a good chance that someone will buy you a steak the size of a sub-Saharan principality. But there's also a good chance that you'll be seated next to a lobbyist for the American Coalition for Clean Coal, who will treat you to a soliloquy on the respiratory benefits of airborne toxins.
"They're not a respite," says Tancredo, who's now running for governor of Colorado. "They're usually with contributors to the party, and you're supposed to shmooze. They're not always comfortable."[page]
Worse, these events have a way of trampling lesser egos.
Washington is often referred to as "Hollywood for ugly people." But since there are 535 members of Congress, only the most prominent get the all-hands-on-deck obsequiousness reserved for Brangelina and Clooney. If you're a freshman from Minnesota or a back-bencher from Missouri, expect to play the role of Tori Spelling.
Connie Schultz knows the drill. She's the author of And His Lovely Wife, a memoir of campaigning with her husband, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). Though she may be a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist, she's well acquainted with what's known as the "D.C. scalp stare" — the practice of looking over the head of the person with whom you're speaking, preparing to leap at first sight of someone more important entering your field of vision.
"People are always looking over your shoulder as you're talking to them to see who else is coming in," she says. "It's ambitious, and it can be so impersonal."
6. Wasn't I supposed to get 252 days off this year?
Technically, you were. The House is scheduled to meet only 113 days this year, making this the easiest job since the invention of trophy wives. But most members believe that if they're not in constant demand, "they're slipping into obscurity," says one staffer.
So they're off to the airport every Thursday night, flying home to a new schedule of parades, manufacturing tours, town hall events, and meetings. Always more meetings.
Fridays and Saturdays are spent touring the state, playing the resident dignitary at Eagle Scout ceremonies and business openings. It's a grueling schedule, especially if you represent a more populous state. Brown, for example, must answer to the needs of 11 million people. "You have a lot of people who want your time," Schultz says.
Nor does the work week finally end when the clock ticks five on Saturday evening. "It is a 24/7 job," says former senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). "You're always on call for the emergencies that occur. There are people who are trapped on the top of mountains. There are people who are taken hostage. It could be Sunday. It could be Saturday at 2 a.m."
Someone, somewhere will want you to immediately mobilize the government.
And they'll still be calling you a lazy swine two weeks from now.
5. You will beg treasure from complete strangers.
This is what Washingtonians euphemistically call "strategic outreach."
A leaked PowerPoint presentation from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee shows the party urging incoming freshmen to spend at least four hours per day soliciting money. Since it's considered gauche — and likely illegal — to mooch contributors from the office, this means slipping away to party headquarters, where your dialing finger develops calluses worthy of an Indonesian call center.
Yet dial you must. This job is a purely capitalist pursuit. He who stockpiles the most loot wins 91 percent of the time. And raising money for the party directly correlates to the prestige of your committee assignments. Beg with insufficient zeal, and you'll find yourself chairing the Subcommittee on Gardening & Lawn Care Products.
Democratic senator Dennis DeConcini spent 18 years representing Arizona before becoming a lobbyist. Whenever election time neared, his treasurer would "give me a list of people to call, with the names of their wives and where their kids went to college. And that's what I did all weekend — call people."
"You're having to ask people all the time to fund your career," Schultz adds. "What other profession is like that?"
This may explain the devolving reputation of Congress, whose approval rating now flutters at just 13 percent. You have to be deeply committed to the cause — or equally willing to debase yourself – to even consider this job.
Asks Democrat Bob Graham, a former senator and governor from Florida: "How many people would feel comfortable being handed 100 telephone numbers of people you don't know and calling them up and asking them for $1,000?"
4. You probably suck at parenting.
The crushing schedule leaves you primed for charges of familial abandonment. Most legislators get just one day a week with the spouse and kids.
When people ask Tancredo whether they should run for office, he answers with a simple question: "I say, 'Well, do you like your family?'"
He relates the tale of a fellow congressman, a father of five whose work left little time for home. One day, the man's 5-year-old found a videotape of Dad speaking and plugged it into the VCR. The boy's younger brother had seen so little of his father that he tried to hug his image on TV.
Connie Morella had it easier than most — if it's possible to describe a mother of nine's life as "easy." When her sister died of cancer, the Republican congresswoman and her husband — who already had three children — adopted her sister's six kids. But at least she represented nearby Maryland.[page]
She recalls hustling to PTA meetings and back-to-school nights, where her kids were forced to compete with constituents for her attention. It left her with a lingering sense of guilt. "Oh, yes," she says. "Children had to sacrifice to be in political families."
Much worse is the ache in parents who represent distant states. In the old days, legislators could keep their families intact by moving them to D.C. But as disgust for Congress grew, so began an arms race to demonstrate who could be less Washington than the next guy.
Think of it as a weird form of one-upmanship for people with deficit self-awareness. If you're a member of Congress, after all, you're the very embodiment of Washington.
Still, most now boast of keeping their families back home. Others make public spectacles of sleeping in their offices. Look! I'm so not D.C., I don't even have an electric bill here!
"Members will get criticized if they move their families to Washington, because they'll be seen as out of touch with the district," says Martin Frost, a former Democratic congressman from Texas. Occupationally speaking, this can be a lethal accusation.
Take Republican Richard Lugar, who arrived in the Senate from Indiana in 1977. At the time, it was standard practice to move to D.C. Over the next 36 years, Lugar became one of the more eminent members of Congress. Until the last election, that is, when it was revealed that he'd sold his Indianapolis home three decades earlier.
The senator was soon attacked with headlines like this one, from the Daily Caller: "Richard Lugar doesn't live here anymore." His stock plunged so far he was beaten in the GOP primary by a guy who believes pregnancy from rape is "something God intended to happen."
3. You're only one slip away from national ridicule.
The wonderful thing about being a normal human being: Your every misstep is pleasantly shrouded by your own obscurity. Not so in Congress.
"These people are running from appearance to appearance, and everything they do has the potential for catastrophe," notes one staffer. "All they have to do is slip off a stage or have a mic catch them in a swear word."
And when that happens, enemy yes-men will be lying in wait, ready to denounce your very soul with prefabricated acrimony and grave demands for apologies.
"We're perched on the ledge, hoping and hoping they'll say something outrageous," says the staffer. "And then it's like, 'Yes!' But then we have to pretend we're outraged. It's theater."
Every conversation, no matter how small, brings the possibility of nationwide derision, YouTube infamy, and a featured spot in late-night monologues.
"You think you're sitting there talking frankly, and somebody's taping you on their cell phone," says Simpson. "And all they're waiting for is a gaffe. You're being followed all day — not for the purpose of what you're saying, but for that stupid little statement you make when you haven't slept but three hours the night before."
Even a trip to the store is cause for caution. Morella recalls thinking twice before she ever stepped out the door. "I would be careful, even when I went to the market, about what I was wearing. I had people contact me who didn't like my hair or my earrings. I had people say I was seen shopping for dresses in the sale aisle."
2. You will be 17 again — and not in a good way.
Politicians like to describe their profession as "war." It conjures a portrait of courage, gallantry, and hand-to-hand combat — preferably featuring nicely oiled pectoral muscles. Which means it's a wholly unsuitable metaphor. When you fight by insulting people on TV, you're more Joan Rivers than George Patton.
After all, the dignified statesman does not stoop to fisticuffs. This is seen as inelegant — not to mention scary. So you assault your foes with innuendo, misinformation, rumor, and, of course, Photoshop.
In other words, it's just like high school.
In the last election, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce presumably hired the cast of Mean Girls to attack Sherrod Brown. In one ad, his photo was doctored with a five o'clock shadow to make him look as if he'd just returned from a three-week bender while living under a bridge. Sherrod Brown: He doesn't even bathe.
Rumor works just as well, as West Virginia officials learned during the recent sign-up for Obamacare. Some residents resisted, having heard that it required the implanting of a chip in their bodies. This, apparently, was a dealbreaker.
You can even count on being undermined by your own party. Tancredo recalls the incessant pressure from leadership to toe the Republican line. On this job, independence is one of the graver signs, certain to leave lasting stains on your permanent record.[page]
"The most serious threats they could muster is that you were going to ruin your career in this place," he says. "People there, that's the most enticing thing to them. I'd tell him, 'I don't want a career in this place. I don't even like this place.'"
Then there's the case of Congressman Vance McAllister (R-Louisiana). Last month, he was working late in his district office. This afforded him the opportunity to engage in a brief but festive makeout session with aide Melissa Peacock.
Problem No. 1: McAllister had appeared in campaign commercials with his wife and five children, promising to "defend our Christian way of life." (Most likely by renaming post offices after biblical greats.)
Problem No. 2: Ms. Peacock was married to someone other than Vance McAllister.
Problem No. 3: McAllister's amorous lip wrestling was caught on security tape. And leaked to a newspaper. Allegedly by someone on his own staff.
This Judas environment is to be expected. When an entire enterprise is built on avoiding accomplishment, backstabbing and palace intrigue become the sport of the realm.
DeConcini recently visited a Republican friend in Congress. "He told me how terrible it was," he says. "He said it was just awful, even in his own caucus. There's a gotcha feeling."
He then visited with a liberal Democrat. "He told me the same thing about the Democrats: 'I gotta have my way, and I gotta show that I'm tough.'"
But since everyone in Washington is busy being so not Washington, the toxicity of the job is always someone else's fault. Yes, crowing about "personal responsibility" plays before the cameras — yet only amateurs dare practice it.
"Even members of Congress hate Congress," says an aide. "It's just that they each believe themselves to be the exception to the rule. Congress is not a team with a collective identity. It's a collection of individuals guided almost exclusively by ruthless self-interest."
1. The least among you will get the most attention.
In one sense, "Congress is a microcosm of the country," says former representative Bartlett. "There's going to be 15 to 20 percent who do nothing, 15 to 20 percent who do everything, and the rest in between."
The problem is that those who do nothing are celebrated the most.
To be a fixture of the green room requires special bombast. You'll need tales of villainy. High-decibel outrage. A prevailing sense of victimhood. If you can't do it with a straight face, forget about making Sean Hannity's guest list.
The same skills apply to courting donors. "One of the ways you raise money is by appearing to be very adamant and unforgiving," says Bob Graham. "The more strident you are, the more likely you are to be successful in the financial returns."
Yet ceaseless shrieking, as you may have guessed, can make you deeply unpopular with colleagues. They may name a post office after your ex-wife.
"A successful member of Congress is not going to talk like Rush Limbaugh, blasting away," says Bartlett. "There are some members who do, but they're not going to be successful. If you're attacking all the time, maybe you incite the crowd, but not many members are going to vote with you."
Yet as Tancredo tells it, a good chunk of Congress is perfectly happy being hostile to success — as long as they can moonlight as TV pundits. You still get the private sauna, the small army of supplicants, and powerful people gathering outside your door, waiting to bathe you in flattery and tribute.
"That was the most aggravating thing, looking around and seeing so many people who just wanted to be in Congress," Tancredo says. "You got your paycheck. You got your perks. What the hell? It's better than driving a cab."
Philip Seymour Hoffman is an island of rumpled calm in Anton Corbijn's urgent A Most Wanted Man, a glum-out-of-principle espionage story based on a John Le Carré novel. The role demands that Hoffman be quiet, steady, occasionally frustrated, and that he hold secrets — often from us, which is a bit of a shame. This is the last film that Hoffman completed, and other than a few humane flourishes — a bleat of anger, a playful wave to a video monitor showing a prisoner flipping him off — he's a poker-faced riddle. It's our job as viewers to wonder whether he's a hero, a monster, or that pie slice of Venn diagram where those possibilities overlap.
As you watch, teasing out the character's mysteries, it's impossible not also to worry about the actor's. Hoffman's whiskery, unknowable Günther Bachmann is the leader of an encouragingly humane street-level counterterrorism squad in a stylishly miserable Hamburg, where it's always just finished raining. He slumps along with only his work to throw himself into, with his soul ground down between conflicting forces beyond his control. Knowing that this is the last full creation of this most restless and gifted of actors makes the character's alienation all the more moving: Like Hoffman, Bachmann proves masterful at his craft but still faces terrible disappointments.
"I head an anti-terror unit that not many people know about and even less like," Bachmann says, his voice a froggy rumble. (Hoffman has sleeved that purr of his in a thick, Teutonic accent.) The people who don't like him — and just barely tolerate his methods — include the German government, which prefers to kick down doors and indiscriminately arrest suspects, and the Americans, who keep insisting they're done with the black hoods–and-extradition routine. Bachmann favors extraordinary measures to determine whether suspected terrorists are actually guilty. He'll let low-level bad guys roam his port city until they lead him to the bigger threats. But since Mohamed Atta planned the September 11 attacks in Hamburg, both countries' intelligence arms are forever monkeying in Bachmann's business.
The case that wears Bachmann down for most of A Most Wanted Man starts small. Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a young Muslim man from Chechnya, enters Hamburg illegally with no identification except a letter entitling him to millions from an international bank. The money is an inheritance of sort from Karpov's father, a murderous Russian gangster. Bachmann wants to trail Karpov to see whom he associates with and what he plans to do with the money — might he use it to fund terrorism? An idealistic immigration lawyer played by Rachel McAdams takes up Karpov's case, and a banker played by Willem Dafoe faces pressure from Bachmann to wear a wire and string Karpov along.
Hoffman's scenes with Dafoe are wonderfully tense — here are two actors known for holding things in and then exploding, playing powerful men manipulating one another. Who will blow first? There's little violence or movie-style action here, but director Corbijn suggests in each moment that something could go very wrong. Like his last film, The American, A Most Wanted Man proceeds with deliberate care, but this time nothing feels slow or pretentious. The American was like the cover story of some men's adventure magazine told in art-house slow-mo; A Most Wanted Man is simply a complex tale superbly told, with time for nuance and to soak in its mysteries.
There's also time to soak in Hamburg. Much of the movie takes place on its streets, trains, and ferries, with detours into its grubbier diners and thumping-est clubs. Outside, there's always some silhouetted bridge in the background, grand and grimy, and some rush of out-of-control traffic. The effect is both gorgeous and nerve-jangling: Corbijn's Hamburg is like Europe's steel-and-concrete nerve center, and the movie never lets you forget how easily an act of terror planned there could bring down the world outside.
The opening shot, of waves lapping against a concrete wall, starts sensuously and turns hauntingly sinister: Karpov hauls himself up out of the drink and into the city, a desperate man either fleeing horrors back home or committed to creating new ones here. Dobrygin's performance, like Hoffman's, is directed inside — he's cagey, too, but everyone's refusal to state directly their intentions isn't just a trick to gin up suspense. These men are knotted up: We can tell Karpov's scared, we can tell he's devout, we can tell he has some un-devout hots for McAdams' lawyer. Bachmann makes it his mission to find out what's happening inside Karpov, and by the end, Corbijn and screenwriter Andrew Bovell have laid bare all of these unknowable men. The answers satisfy — sometimes they're even heartening. But you know all along that this story can't arrive at a happy ending. It's a credit to the craft of everyone involved that that end still satisfies so deeply.
A Most Wanted Man
Directed by Anton Corbijn. Written by Andrew Bovell. Based on the novel by John Le Carré. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Grigoriy Dobrygin, and Robin Wright.
The sex scene almost makes it worth sitting through Atlas Shrugged III, the last and least of the cheapjack adaptations of Ayn Rand's brick-thick celebration of taking your ball and going home. About an hour in, after she's toured and left the hidden Colorado enclave of the captains of industry who have “gone Galt” and dropped out of our ungrateful society, heroine Dagny Taggart (Laura Regan) faces one of the great train-scheduling crises that are forever cocking up life in Rand's retro-future choo-choo America.
The pre-coital drama plays like a story problem from homeschool math class: Facing a food shortage, the useless East Coast needs trains full of grain from the heartland, but the corrupt federal government has nationalized the railroads. (Thanks, N0bummer!) Meanwhile, a signal failure cripples train service throughout the famed Taggart Terminal, and only Taggart Transcontinental Chief Operating Officer Dagny has the smarts/gumption to straighten the situation out. How to get the trains through? Displaying the sort of genius that the gifted too often allow their lessers to benefit from, Dagny dispatches workers bearing lanterns to signal to oncoming trains, an idea that apparently could have occurred to no other living person.
One of the workers, the sexy un-impoverished-looking one, catches her eye. It's John Galt (Kristoffer Polaha), the Harlequin Romance hunk who runs that VIP colony in the Rockies and has also invented a magic energy source that he won't share with the world because he hates minimum-wage laws. He's flirted with Dagny before, back in the log-homes and farmers' markets of his free-market paradise, but only now do they admit their attraction. They sneak off together, bodies a-throb with the excitement of transportation-system management, and the movie is briefly wonderful. After some 30 seconds of close-ups of backs and bras and lips, Atlas Shrugs III cuts from the coupling to the funniest thing that it possibly could: one of those lantern-bearing signalmen actually guiding a train into a tunnel.
That had to be intentionally hilarious, right?
Since it's a PG-13, the sex is vague and quick, leaving vital questions unanswered. For all we know, he might have gone Galt all over her dress. Here's how Conservapedia, the right-wing wiki hive-mind, describes the scene in the book: “She rushes to an abandoned tunnel. Galt follows, and the two of them finally come together.” Well, then.
Rand's parable is meant to showcase just how much our world needs the best of us, but this adaptation only does so accidentally — by revealing what movies would be like if none of the best of us worked on them. Key scenes feel hustled through, the plotting (which sometimes is updated for today and sometimes is not) vague and confounding. Fake newscast footage of America's vague calamities — pirate attacks! copper shortage! train delays! — sounds like it's narrated by an intern. And the world is never convincing: Why are there redwoods in John Galt's Rocky Mountain hideaway? Why does this America not seem to have highways or trucking? And where is everybody? The streets are empty, and in the absurd ending, Dagny and a squad of lovable billionaires bust into a secret compound to save Galt from torture ordered by the president of the United States — and only face one security guard.
Other questions: Why is Galt posed like a crucified Christ in a movie based on a book by the right's most beloved atheist? Why haven't the filmmakers updated the train politics for an audience who, mostly, consider public transportation an affront to American sovereignty? And why can't any two Atlas Shrugged films have the same leading actors? Was the last cast so moved by the material that they've gone Galt themselves?
The movie's so slipshod and half-assed that I almost feel for Rand, whose ideas have proved enduring enough that they at least deserve a fair representation, if only for the sake of refutation. Here those ideas are presented without force or clarity. The films reflect neither the '50s America that Rand lived in and wrote about, the Soviet Union that she fled, nor any comprehensible political now. Early on, a doctor explains that he's joined Galt's Colorado do-nothings because the feds had started telling him what treatments he should and shouldn't give. That moment was greeted with hisses by a couple Obama-haters at the screening I attended. But not even Dinesh D'Souza fans could link the current administration to the events of the final reels, when Galt winds up on the business end of a taxpayer-funded torture device. (It looks like a wire bedframe attached to a Fisher-Price Busy Box.) The quick glimpses of Galt lashed to it, screaming as sparks rain down on him, might have come from the recent documentary Kink, about San Francisco s&m porn–factory Kink.com — if Kink dropped its production values.
The film's just the barest gist of Rand, a glib Left Behind fantasy about starting new, exclusive suburbs with cool gold money. (The economic supermen, after bowing out of life, are going to do their own farming?) Galt's epic speech to America, which takes about three hours to read in the book, gets five or so minutes of screentime and is the most effective scene in all three films. All that's a shame, as the ideal dramatized in Atlas Shrugged — that, for the gifted, contributing to the greater welfare is a choice rather than an obligation — actually has transformed American life. How else to justify offshore accounting, overseas manufacturing, the abandonment of infrastructure spending? Those who can have already gone Galt...but found a way to stick around and savor the spoils. We'd be better off if they actually just left.
With the first two documentaries in her post–9-11 trilogy -- My Country, My Country, a portrait of Iraq under American occupation, and The Oath, which focused on two Guantánamo Bay prisoners -- Laura Poitras seemed to be making a bid for the title of film's most vigilant observer of American foreign-policy excesses. An Academy Award nomination and a MacArthur “Genius” grant later, she seems to have comfortably assumed that mantle -- but her third film on the subject resonates far beyond the scope of America’s military interventions in the Middle East. A meditation on how technology can be abused by power, a diagram of how power enacts itself through structures, and a sketch of one individual willing to throw himself into the cogs of said structure, Citizenfour, Poitras’s latest, examines the broad ramifications of the seemingly omnipresent assault on privacy in contemporary America -- and the world.
See also: Our Citizenfour film review
Poitras was one of the first journalists contacted by Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor who blew the whistle on the NSA’s secret PRISM initiative, a widespread electronic surveillance program that gathers data on American citizens. The film provides an unprecedented level of intimate access to Snowden -- much of it reveals Snowden explaining PRISM to Poitras and then-Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald while preparing the press leak from a Hong Kong hotel room. It also brings a wider narrative into focus. Poitras opens with William Binney, the former NSA official who has become an outspoken critic of the scope and methods of NSA surveillance. Technology -- its advances, capabilities, and problematic uses -- are central to the film’s concerns.
“I think when a new technology emerges, it has the potential to disrupt things,” Poitras told me recently. “When you look at the coverage of the Vietnam War, versus how wars are covered now -- there was something incredibly raw about when you could first bring cameras into the field and see the horrors of war. That impacted people. It made the public feel differently about war, as opposed to this more corporate, distant version of war that we see on TV now.”
Poitras offers some incisive points concerning the institutional co-opting of technology throughout history, a phenomenon that includes particle physics leading to the atom bomb, trains facilitating the Holocaust. “The internet is being commercialized and militarized by various governments.” Poitras explains that a crucial component of Snowden’s decision to leak NSA documents was his desire to fight the co-opting of the internet. “Glenn [told Snowden], early on, ‘You could end up in prison, which is the maximum violation of your privacy.’ Snowden's response was that he remembered when the internet was a great source of freedom for humanity, and he sees it now as a tool for surveillance. He finds that profoundly disturbing, and he thought drawing attention to that was worth it.”
One of the reasons Citizenfour is more than just another post–9-11 exploration of American overreach is that privacy -- especially the infringement upon and commodification thereof -- now plays a central role in how so many powerful institutions in the U.S. function. Those include not only government agencies but also private corporations like Google and Facebook, whose revenue models hinge on the mining of user data. Many Americans, especially young ones, responded with a shrugging of the shoulders to the PRISM revelations -- “Facebook and Google already have all my information,” the refrain went, “so who cares if the government has it too?” Crucially, Poitras sees a distinct difference, one that bears highlighting.
“I do think there's cause to be concerned about what Google can do with the information it has on you,” Poitras said. “It's frightening, but in a different way, because Google has less power than the government. The relationship with Google is consensual...But if you ask people to put cameras in their homes, or ask for their email passwords, they'll resist that. I think privacy isn't a matter of taste, but rather a fundamental human desire and right, and if you breach it in certain ways, people will respond and feel violated.”
Poitras argues that privacy is often the proverbial canary in the coalmine: “In any regime that removes certain rights or privileges, state surveillance is always one of the first things that happens.”
Poitras is personally aware of the effects of such surveillance, and of the increased scrutiny that comes from being outspoken in these affairs of state: Well before she knew Snowden, she had landed on a U.S. government watch list, and she's routinely stopped and searched when traveling into and out of the country. A few years ago she moved to Berlin, in order to protect source material for a project she was working on, and it was there that Snowden first reached out to her. It was apparent that working with Snowden would place Poitras under far greater observation -- but she was undeterred.
“I've been working on these issues for a long time, so the feeling, as an American, that this country is drifting -- morally -- away from basic principles like the rule of law is very concerning,” she explains. “I feel like I'm in a position where I can contribute to a conversation that may shed some light on the human implications of some of these policies. I've been on this path for a while. There was a high degree of risk in this, but I also felt that with the magnitude of these disclosures, moving forward was a no-brainer…there were risks for the journalists, but the risks were far greater for the source.”
That’s not to diminish the sacrifice Poitras herself has made -- as she admits, “There were moments of real tension and stress, thinking about how the implications of this stuff would be really intense and dangerous. It will change my life moving forward.” Indeed, her life has changed -- but due to the risks she and her source have undertaken, the lives of every American citizen have changed as well.