John Powers

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.

Powers covers film and politics for Vogue and Vogue.com. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Harper's BAZAAR, The Nation, Gourmet, The Washington Post, The New York Times and L.A. Weekly, where he spent twelve years as a critic and columnist.

A former professor at Georgetown University, Powers is the author of Sore Winners, a study of American culture during President George W. Bush's administration.

He lives in Pasadena, California, with his wife, Sandi Tan.

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Book Reviews
2:50 pm
Wed March 26, 2014

'Redeployment' Explores Iraq War's Physical And Psychic Costs

Joe Raedle Getty Images

Originally published on Wed March 26, 2014 8:13 pm

Here's an old joke you may have heard: "How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a light bulb?" Answer: "You wouldn't know, you weren't there."

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Remembrances
2:36 pm
Thu February 27, 2014

Remembering Harold Ramis, Master Of The 'Smart Dumb-Movie'

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Harold Ramis, who died earlier this week, was a writer, director and actor who played a key role in several of the most popular comedies of the last half-century. His list of credits includes "Animal House," "Caddyshack," "Meatballs," "Stripes," "Ghostbusters," and of course "Groundhog Day." Our critic-at-large John Powers is a fan and says there was more going on in Ramis' work than you might think.

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Movie Reviews
2:11 pm
Wed February 19, 2014

For A Rabbi Who Worked With The Nazis, Is Judgment 'Unjust'?

In 1975, Shoah director Claude Lanzmann (left) interviewed Benjmain Murmelstein, the last surviving Elder of the Jews of the Czech Theresienstadt ghetto, at his home in Rome. The resulting film is The Last of the Unjust.
Cohen Media Group

Originally published on Wed February 19, 2014 2:38 pm

When you're faced with something as heinous as the Holocaust, it's tempting to turn it into a simple morality play. This isn't to say one can't pass moral judgments — Hitler and his cohort were undeniably evil. But judging can become a form of lazy evasion, a way of closing the book on the tricky realities of failure, guilt and complicity.

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Television
12:48 pm
Tue February 4, 2014

'Borgen' Is Denmark's 'West Wing' (But Even Better)

Borgen's heroine is Birgitte Nyborg, superbly played by Sidse Babett Knudsen. Pilou Asbaek plays Don Draper-ish spin doctor Kasper Juul.
MHz Networks

Originally published on Wed February 5, 2014 11:10 am

The Danish television series Borgen about a female party leader who unexpectedly becomes Denmark's prime minister was a hit in its home country and in the U.K. It won numerous international prizes, and a cult following in the U.S. after its sporadic TV broadcasts — Stephen King named it his favorite piece of pop culture of 2012. The third and final season has just been released on DVD by MHz Networks, which also brought out seasons one and two.

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Movie Reviews
2:01 pm
Mon January 13, 2014

Three Protesters, One 'Square': Film Goes Inside Egypt's Revolution

Before protesting in The Square, Khalid Abdalla (left) acted in such films as The Kite Runner, Green Zone and United 93.
Noujaim Films

Originally published on Tue January 14, 2014 12:46 pm

A revolution is a bit like a writing a mystery novel. It's hard to start but even harder to come up with a satisfying ending.

They're still working on that in Egypt. Three years after the toppling of dictator Hosni Mubarak — the crowning moment of the Arab Spring — the army's running the country again; the elected president, Mohammed Morsi, has been arrested and charged with treason; the Muslim Brotherhood has been banned; and Tahrir Square's secular protesters are getting arrested. All this in the name of order and country.

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Book Reviews
1:00 pm
Tue December 10, 2013

Frustrating Heroine Stars In Fresh, Feminist 'Nightingale'

iStockphoto

Originally published on Tue December 10, 2013 3:33 pm

There's an unforgettable moment in the diary of the great Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. He's on the beach and he spots a beetle that's been blown on its back by the wind and now lies there helplessly, legs wiggling, unable to right itself. Gombrowicz saves it by turning it over. He sees another upside-down beetle, and turns it over. Then, another. Looking along the sand, he realizes that there are so many beetles he can't possibly save them all. Eventually, he gives up trying.

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Movie Reviews
1:23 pm
Tue November 19, 2013

'Great Beauty,' 'Narco Cultura': Excess, Succeeding Wildly

Toni Servillo plays a jaded journalist and perpetual partier in The Great Beauty, Italy's submission for the best foreign language film Oscar.
Guanni Fiorito Janus Films

Originally published on Tue November 19, 2013 3:36 pm

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake served up one of those mind-bending proverbs he's known for: "The road of excess leads," he wrote, "to the palace of wisdom." I thought about this line as I watched two terrific new movies that put Blake's words to the test.

Paolo Sorrentino's thrillingly good The Great Beauty tackles the idea head-on — it's an excessive film about excess. Sorrentino doesn't merely aim to update one of the most famous movies of all time (Fellini's portrait of decadent Rome, La Dolce Vita). He intends to better it.

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Book Reviews
3:01 pm
Mon November 4, 2013

Female Friendship Puts 'New' Angle On Italian Classism And Machismo

The Story Of A New Name Book Cover

Originally published on Fri November 8, 2013 9:46 am

Some writers you read and move on, but every now and then you read one whose work knocks you back against the wall. This happened to me with the great Italian novelist Elena Ferrante.

I first encountered her through her scalding 2002 novel, The Days Of Abandonment, whose narrator, Olga, may be the scariest jilted wife since Medea. What makes Olga scary is not what she does, but what she thinks and feels, and her ferocious precision in describing everything from lousy sexual encounters to her not-altogether-maternal feelings about her children.

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Television
2:50 pm
Thu September 26, 2013

'Masters Of Sex' Get Unmasterful Treatment On Showtime

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan portray pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson in a new Showtime series.
Craig Blankenhorn Showtime

Originally published on Thu September 26, 2013 3:34 pm

Way back in the 1950s — before people tweeted snapshots of their privates or posted their hookup diaries online — it was considered inappropriate to talk too much about sex. The guardians of culture treated it as something better kept in the dark.

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Television
1:40 pm
Thu August 22, 2013

Aussie Detective Jack Irish Is More Than Old-School Macho

Guy Pearce (front left) plays Jack Irish in TV movie adaptations of two Peter Temple novels. The films, Bad Debts and Black Tide, are broadcast by digital provider Acorn TV.
Lachlan Moore Acorn TV

Originally published on Thu August 22, 2013 4:28 pm

When Raymond Chandler first set Philip Marlowe walking down the mean streets of L.A., he couldn't have imagined that eventually every city, from ancient Athens to 21st century Bangkok, would have its own detective series. Of course, they're not all equally good.

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Book Reviews
1:07 pm
Mon August 12, 2013

Addictive 'Infatuations' Takes A Metaphysical Look At Crime

iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Mon August 12, 2013 1:48 pm

If you're like me, you probably feel exhausted just thinking about how much cultural stuff is out there. A friend recently told me he was reading an acclaimed Hungarian novelist whose books I've never opened. "Please tell me he stinks," I begged, "so I don't have to read him."

"Actually, he's great," came the reply, and I groaned. This was something I didn't want to know.

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Arts + Life
2:53 pm
Wed July 24, 2013

'My Lunches With Orson' Puts You At The Table With Welles

Central Press Getty Images

If you asked me to name my favorite movie scene, I'd choose the one in Citizen Kane when newspaper owner Charles Foster Kane steals his rivals' best reporters, then throws a party in his own honor. As musicians literally sing his praises, we watch Kane dance with chorus girls wearing a look of radiant delight. It's a moment bursting with promise and cockiness and joie de vivre, made all the more exuberant because Kane's pleasure is so obviously shared by Welles himself.

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Movie Reviews
2:19 pm
Tue June 25, 2013

'The Bling Ring': Celebrity Culture And Its Little Monsters

In Sofia Coppola's film The Bling Ring, about the excesses of Los Angeles materialism, Emma Watson plays narcissistic party girl Nicki.
Merrick Morton A24

We live in a world filled with crimes, but most of them don't have much to tell us. They're cases of mere stupidity, cruelty or greed. But every now and then one comes along that invites larger thoughts about the culture.

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Movie Reviews
3:20 pm
Thu May 2, 2013

Peeling Away The Layers In A 'Portrait Of Jason'

Jason Holliday (nee Aaron Payne) is the soloist in front of the camera in Shirley Clarke's seminal 1967 documentary, Portrait of Jason.
Milestone Film

Originally published on Thu May 2, 2013 3:51 pm

If reality TV has a redeeming value, it's that it teaches you to be suspicious of claims that you're seeing real people doing real things. This is especially so in an age when memoirs bristle with made-up events, and everyone from the Kardashians to the Obamas orchestrate their media coverage. These days, it's hard to tell whether an article, book or TV show is showing you the real person or only a performance.

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Movie Reviews
12:58 pm
Fri March 29, 2013

Hunting For Secrets In 'The Shining's' Room 237

Rodney Ascher, director of the experimental documentary Room 237, leads an exploration of differing interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's classic horror film The Shining.
IFC Midnight

Originally published on Fri March 29, 2013 2:05 pm

Awhile back, I went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see its show on filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. It was jammed with visitors poring over his letters, eyeing the dresses worn by the spooky twins in The Shining, and posing for photos in front of the sexy-futuristic decor of the Korova Milk Bar from A Clockwork Orange.

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Television
11:27 am
Tue March 19, 2013

A Measured Look At Roth As The Writer Turns 80

A new documentary about Philip Roth premieres on PBS next week as part of a slew of celebrations in honor of the novelist's 80th birthday.
PBS

Originally published on Tue March 19, 2013 2:11 pm

In Chinua Achebe's novel The Anthills of the Savannah, one of the characters says, "Poets don't give prescriptions. They give headaches."

The same is true of novelists, and none more so than Philip Roth. If any writer has ever enjoyed rattling people's skulls, it's this son of Newark, N.J., who's currently enjoying something of a victory lap in the media on the occasion of his 80th birthday. The celebration reaches its peak with a new documentary — Philip Roth Unmasked — that will screen on PBS next week as part of the American Masters series.

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Movie Reviews
1:40 pm
Wed February 20, 2013

Voting Pinochet Out Was More Than Just A Yes Or 'No'

Gael Garcia Bernal stars as an advertising man in Chile under Pinochet in the 2012 film No, which is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards.
Sony Pictures Classics

These days politics and advertising go hand in hand. Mayors stage photo ops. The Bush administration compared the Iraq war to rolling out a new product. And just last year, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent nearly a billion dollars running for president. If you're an American, such wall-to-wall marketing has come to seem a natural phenomenon, like Hurricane Sandy or LeBron James.

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Book Reviews
11:58 am
Wed February 6, 2013

A Mystery That Explores 'The Rage' Of New Ireland

Westbury iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Wed February 6, 2013 2:40 pm

The Irish novelist John McGahern once remarked that his country stayed a 19th-century society for so long that it nearly missed the 20th century. But in the mid-1990s, Ireland's economy took off, turning the country from a poor backwater into a so-called Celtic Tiger with fancy restaurants, chrome-clad shops and soaring real estate values. The country was transformed — until things came tumbling down during the 2008 financial crisis.

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Movies
3:44 pm
Wed December 5, 2012

Revisiting, Reappraising Cimino's 'Heaven's Gate'

Jeff Bridges as John L. Bridges, Isabelle Huppert as Ella Watson and Kris Kristofferson as James Averill in the 1980 Western Heaven's Gate, a director's cut of which was released in November.
Criterion Collection

Originally published on Fri December 7, 2012 9:38 am

The director Francois Truffaut once remarked that it takes as much time and energy to make a bad movie as to make a good one. He was right, but I would add one thing: It takes extraordinary effort to make a truly memorable flop.

The best example is Heaven's Gate, the hugely expensive 1980 movie by Michael Cimino that is the most famous cinematic disaster of my lifetime. It's part of that film's legend that it not only took down a studio, United Artists, but was the nail in the coffin of Hollywood's auteur filmmaking of the 1970s.

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Movie Reviews
2:47 pm
Thu November 15, 2012

The New British Empire: Pop-Culture Powerhouses

The HBO documentary Crossfire Hurricane, about The Rolling Stones, prompts critic John Powers to reflect on the band's five decades of fame.
HBO Films

It seems that every time you turn around, you find another anniversary of some big cultural or historical event. I'm weary of the media's habit of playing all these things up, so I'm abashed to admit I'm about to do just that.

But you see, in the same three-day period I recently saw the new James Bond picture, Skyfall, and Crossfire Hurricane, a new HBO documentary about The Rolling Stones. And because the Bond movies and the Stones both turn 50 this year, I began thinking about how they might fit together.

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