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 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.



Thu May 2, 2013
Movie Reviews

Peeling Away The Layers In A 'Portrait Of Jason'

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

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

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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Fri March 29, 2013
Movie Reviews

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

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

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

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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Tue March 19, 2013

A Measured Look At Roth As The Writer Turns 80

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

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.

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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Wed February 20, 2013
Movie Reviews

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

Originally published on Wed February 20, 2013 1:40 pm

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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Wed February 6, 2013
Book Reviews

A Mystery That Explores 'The Rage' Of New Ireland

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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Wed December 5, 2012

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

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

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

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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Thu November 15, 2012
Movie Reviews

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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Thu October 25, 2012
Book Reviews

Portis 'Miscellany' Makes A High-'Velocity' Collection

Originally published on Thu October 25, 2012 3:31 pm

Escape Velocity: book cover detail

Whenever I hear someone called a "cult writer," my hackles jump toward the ceiling. It's not only that the phrase calls up images of self-congratulatory hipsters, but that writers who become cultish tend to do so because their work is steeped in bizarro sex, graphic violence, trippy weirdness or half-baked philosophy.

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Mon October 1, 2012

Being 'Joseph Anton,' Rediscovering Salman Rushdie

Originally published on Tue October 9, 2012 10:39 am

Salman Rushdie is the author of The Satanic Verses, which inspired a fatwah calling for his death. His novel Midnight's Children has been adapted into a film that opens in the U.S. on Nov. 2.
Johannes Eisele AFP/Getty Images

In the fall of 1989, I was walking down a London street when someone handed me a flier that asked, "Should Rushdie Die?" The following afternoon, I headed over to the Royal Albert Hall to hear that question answered by a renowned Islamic scholar.

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Fri August 24, 2012
Movie Reviews

How Brazil Lives Now, In 'Neighboring Sounds'

Originally published on Fri August 24, 2012 4:39 pm

Joao (Gustavo Jahn) and Sofia (Irma Brown) are among the inhabitants of the Recife, Brazil, street where Neighboring Sounds takes place.
Victor Juca Cinema Guild

Between mass tourism and the Internet, it's never been easier to learn about other cultures. Yet we often stay on the surface. Watching the Olympics opening ceremony a few weeks ago, I was struck by how much of what was presented as quintessential Britishness came from pop culture — James Bond and Mary Poppins and the chorus to "Hey Jude." Although Britain had a global empire not that long ago, the show's director, Danny Boyle, grasped that the world's image of his green and pleasant land now largely derives from movies and songs.

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Thu July 26, 2012
Movie Reviews

In China, A Persistent Thorn In The State's Side

Originally published on Fri July 27, 2012 11:05 am

Although Ai Weiwei's art is internationally recognized, much of his worldwide fame comes from his political activism in China. The latter is the focus of Alison Klayman's documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.
Ted Alcorn IFC Films

A couple of months ago, I visited Beijing, and like so many before me, I was stunned by how hypercapitalist Communist China has become — the hundreds of glossy highrises, the countless shops selling Prada and Apple, the traffic jams filled with brand new Audis. You felt you could be in L.A. or Tokyo — until you wanted some information. Then you discovered that Facebook was permanently blocked, certain words in Google searches always crashed your browser, and, as my wife joked, it was easier to buy a Rolls-Royce than a real newspaper. Here was a country at once booming — and repressive.

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Thu July 12, 2012

The 'Political Animals' Running Washington, D.C.

Originally published on Thu July 12, 2012 3:36 pm

In Political Animals, Sigourney Weaver plays Elaine Barrish, the current secretary of state and a former first lady.
USA Networks

If you only knew about America from watching TV, the last few months might lead you to think that women here wield enormous political power. First you had Game Change, the story of Sarah Palin's attempt to become vice president. Then you had Veep, in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus's character has accomplished just that. Now comes Political Animals, a new USA network series about a strong female secretary of state who I suspect even a Martian would realize is based on Hillary Clinton.

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Thu June 28, 2012

'Louie': TV's Most Original Comedy Returns

Originally published on Thu June 28, 2012 12:50 pm

Louis C.K. has written for The Late Show with David Letterman, The Chris Rock Show and Late Night with Conan O'Brien.

A lot of stand-up comedians make us laugh, but only a handful, like Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen or Richard Pryor, actually change the way that comedy is done. It's too early to be sure, but another one of them may be Louis C.K., the paunchy, balding, ginger-haired comic who's something of a quiet radical. He has one of those comic talents that's at its best when it isn't worried about being funny.

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Thu June 21, 2012

'The Newsroom' Caught Up In A Partisan Divide

Originally published on Thu June 21, 2012 12:56 pm

In Aaron Sorkin's new HBO drama, The Newsroom, producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) and anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) tackle real hard-hitting news stories and call out those who don't tell the truth.

If anyone in Hollywood wears his idealism like a boutonniere, it's Aaron Sorkin. As The West Wing made clear, Sorkin loves telling stories about principled individuals — especially liberals — struggling with institutions that might compromise their integrity.

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Wed May 2, 2012
Pop Culture

Sherlock: A Character Who's More Than Elementary

Originally published on Wed May 2, 2012 1:04 pm

Basil Rathbone (right) as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1945.

One of my favorite professors, the late Ian Watt, taught that there were four great myths of modern individualism: Faust, Don Juan, Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe. This always got me wondering which, if any, pop-culture heroes might endure in the same way. James Bond? Luke Skywalker? The Avengers? C'mon. In fact, there's only one who I feel sure will last — Sherlock Holmes.

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Tue April 24, 2012
Book Reviews

'Death And The Penguin' Captures Post-Soviet Reality

Originally published on Mon January 27, 2014 11:32 am

When you hear the words "Russian novel," you probably picture something as big and heavy as an anvil. Yet ever since the fall of communism, we've seen the ascent of Russian novelists who are shorter-winded and jauntier.

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Wed March 14, 2012
Movie Reviews

On DVD: Inside Bill Clinton's Campaign 'War Room'

George Stephanopoulos (left) and James Carville advised President Clinton during the 1992 election. Their strategic sessions in Clinton's "War Room" were filmed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker.
October Films/Everett Collection

I think everyone can agree that the Republican Party's search for its presidential nominee has been a long, strange trip. For me, one of the strangest things about it is that, after all this time, I barely know who's running Mitt Romney's, Rick Santorum's and Newt Gingrich's campaigns. You see, over the past 30 years, political strategists have gone from being shadowy figures to being celebrities in their own right.

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Wed February 22, 2012
Movie Reviews

After 'Putin's Kiss,' A Young Girl's Change Of Heart

The documentary Putin's Kiss charts four years in the life of Masha Drokova, who became famous as the girl who publicly kissed Vladimir Putin.
Courtesy of the filmmaker

There's a great moment in Tom Stoppard's play Jumpers when a husband tries to convince his wife that an election has been democratic. "I had a vote," he tells her, to which she replies, "It's not the voting that's democracy; it's the counting."

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Thu January 19, 2012
Movie Reviews

In 'Miss Bala,' Bullets And Beauty Pageants Collide

Originally published on Thu January 19, 2012 1:57 pm

Stephanie Sigman plays Laura, a beauty queen drawn into the world of Mexican drug cartels, in the film Miss Bala.
20th Century Fox

If you read the headlines, you know that the Mexican government is engaged in a long, deadly battle against the country's astonishingly powerful drug dealers, known as narcotraficantes or simply narcos. Hardly a day goes by without news of another shootout or massacre. Nearly 50,000 people have died in the 5-year-old drug war, the majority of them innocent citizens.

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Tue January 17, 2012
Movie Reviews

'A Separation' Of Hearts, Minds And Ideas In Iran

Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) are at odds first about whether to leave Iran for life abroad — and then about more pressing issues.
Sony Picture Classics.

Over the past 30-odd years, we've grown used to thinking of Iran and the United States as enemies — from the Ayatollah Khomeini dubbing America "The Great Satan" to the dispute over Iran's nuclear program, which has led President Obama to spearhead international sanctions and some of his Republican rivals to talk of bombing Iran.

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Tue November 1, 2011
Movie Reviews

'Tinker, Tailor': The Greatest Spy Story Ever Told

Alec Guinness starred in the 1979 BBC adaptation of John le Carre's novel Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy. The series has just been re-released on DVD in anticipation of the release of a new film version of the Cold War-era spy drama.

Acorn Media

When I was 12, I was hooked on James Bond, both Ian Fleming's elegantly pulpy novels and the cartoonish movies they spawned. One day, my friend's older brother, who went to Harvard, tossed a paperback onto my lap and said, "Here's the real thing, kid."

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Tue June 14, 2011

The Art Of Mimicry: A 'Trip' Down Memory Lane

Best Impressions: Steve Coogan (right) and Rob Brydon trade barbs and impersonations in The Trip.
Phil Fisk IFC Films

A few nights ago, I put on Warner Home Video's new Blu-ray of one of my favorite adventure films, The Man Who Would Be King. Based on a story by Rudyard Kipling, this 1975 tale stars Michael Caine and Sean Connery as two roguish British soldiers who scam their way into taking over the country of Kafiristan. It's a terrific movie, and as it unfolded, I was struck that Caine and Connery have been part of my life since I was a kid. I could recognize their voices in my sleep.

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Wed April 27, 2011

David Foster Wallace's Legacy: A Trove Of Good Reads

Writers love to grumble about the popularity of self-help books, yet they, like everyone else, are always looking for someone who'll teach them how to live. Just think of all those guys who learned their masculinity from Hemingway or those classy-sounding books with titles like How Proust Can Change Your Life or How To Live: A Life of Montaigne.

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Wed April 20, 2011
Movie Reviews

The Past, Always Present In The Atacama Dark

Perhaps the most famous line in late-20th-century literature comes from Milan Kundera. "The struggle of man against power," he wrote, "is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

One man who has never stopped struggling is Patricio Guzman, the Chilean filmmaker who was imprisoned during the U.S.-backed coup that toppled Chile's elected president, Salvador Allende, and installed a military dictatorship that lasted the next 17 years. Guzman's documentaries have done as much as anything to keep alive the world's memory of what happened to his country that Sept. 11, 1973.

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Fri March 25, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor's Legacy: AIDS Activist, Movie Star

I was raised to dislike Elizabeth Taylor. My mother, who taught me about the movies, disapproved of her countless men — she never forgave Liz for stealing Eddie from Debbie — and flat-out scoffed at her acting. "She's only beautiful," Mom would snort, a line I found convincing — until I reached puberty. Then, like almost every man in the world, I felt the tidal pull of that violet-eyed, raven-haired beauty, whose ethereal perfection contained within it the promise of carnal delight.

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