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
2:38 pm
Wed April 29, 2015

3,600-Page Autobiographical Novel Is An Honest And Masterful 'Selfie'

Originally published on Wed April 29, 2015 3:59 pm

It seems like there's always some writer you're supposed to be reading. These days, it's Karl Ove Knausgaard, the 46-year-old Norwegian whose six-volume, 3,600-page autobiographical novel, My Struggle, has become a literary sensation. Over the past couple of years, I haven't been able to go to a social gathering without someone asking what I thought of his work. When I've said that I hadn't read a word, they would look genuinely startled and tell me, "You have to."

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Television
3:13 pm
Fri April 3, 2015

The PBS Version Of 'Wolf Hall' Unfolds Like A Real-Life House Of Cards

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

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Movie Reviews
2:01 pm
Fri March 20, 2015

'Seymour': A Loving Portrait Of An Acclaimed Classical Pianist

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

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Book Reviews
2:16 pm
Thu March 19, 2015

'A Little Life': An Unforgettable Novel About The Grace Of Friendship

Originally published on Fri March 20, 2015 1:52 pm

America is hooked on stories of redemption and rebirth, be it Cheryl Strayed rediscovering herself by hiking the Pacific Trail or the late David Carr pulling himself out of the crack-house and into The New York Times. We just love tales about healing.

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Television
2:36 pm
Tue February 24, 2015

Fair Warning: Watch One 'Foyle's War' Episode, And You'll Want To Watch Them All

Michael Kitchen stars as Foyle, a widowed police superintendent in the coastal city of Hastings in England. His sidekick is his driver, Samantha Stewart, a vicar's daughter played by Honeysuckle Weeks.
Acorn TV/ITV

Originally published on Tue February 24, 2015 2:41 pm

The satisfying thing about TV crime shows is that they offer a sense of closure. The unsatisfying thing is how much of life they must leave out to do it. Like, history. Whether you're talking CSI or Sherlock, crime shows tend to take place in a weirdly hermetic universe where the characters may change — like in True Detective — yet the historical moment in which they live remains largely irrelevant background.

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Movie Reviews
2:38 pm
Wed January 28, 2015

Full Of Complexity And Ambivalence, 'American Sniper' Shows The Cost Of War

Bradley Cooper (right) plays Chris Kyle in American Sniper. The film has become a cultural phenomenon and has spawned knee-jerk squabbling.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Originally published on Wed January 28, 2015 3:03 pm

In the years following the invasion of Iraq, it became a truism that Americans simply didn't want to hear about the war — especially at the movies. While there were scads of films about Iraq, including Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, none was able to attract a big audience. Until American Sniper.

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Movie Reviews
12:13 pm
Wed January 21, 2015

'Leviathan' And 'Red Army' Deliver A Peek Inside Russia, Now And Then

Originally published on Wed January 21, 2015 1:27 pm

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

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Movie Reviews
2:31 pm
Fri August 22, 2014

Werner Herzog's Audacious Early Films Showcased In New Boxed Collection

Werner Herzog's 1972 film Aguirre, the Wrath of God was shot along the Amazon in Peru. It probes one of the filmmaker's themes: an unsentimental look at humankind's relationship to landscape and nature.
Courtesy of The Shout! Factory

Originally published on Fri August 22, 2014 3:51 pm

There are lots of good filmmakers, but only a handful are always, unmistakably themselves. One of these is Werner Herzog, the 71-year-old German director who now lives in L.A. Herzog has done things nobody else would do for a film — like trying to tug a 350-ton steamship over a small mountain. This has made him notorious as a wild, love-him-or-hate-him monomaniac — an image he's been canny enough to milk.

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Movie Reviews
2:49 pm
Thu August 14, 2014

British Comedians Take A 'Trip To Italy' And Make Fun Of Each Other

Compared with The Trip, in The Trip to Italy Coogan (right) is gloomier and Brydon is more ambitious.
Courtesy of IFC Films

Originally published on Thu August 14, 2014 4:44 pm

Back in the '90s, there was a Hollywood comedy — I can't remember which one, I'm afraid — that became a surprise hit. Afterward, the movie's producer had this great line. He said, "If we'd known it was going to be so popular, we would've tried to make it good."

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Movie Reviews
3:12 pm
Wed July 23, 2014

'A Hard Day's Night': A Pop Artifact That Still Crackles With Energy

The Beatles perform one of their songs while filming A Hard Day's Night in 1964.
Evening Standard Getty Images

Originally published on Wed July 23, 2014 5:19 pm

Back in 1964, movie audiences were treated to three hit musicals. Two of them — Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady — won scads of Oscars. But it was the third that announced the future, and it did so from its opening chord.

What followed from that chord was what we call The Sixties.

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Movie Reviews
3:44 pm
Tue July 8, 2014

'Violette' Evokes Exasperating Self-Pity, A Trait The French Like

In the new French film Violette, Emmanuelle Devos plays a fictionalized character based on Violette Leduc, the trailblazing French novelist.
Courtesy of Adopt Films

Originally published on Tue July 8, 2014 7:03 pm

Americans put a lot of stock in being likable. Pollsters take surveys of the president's likability. Test screenings check whether we like the characters in movies. And when a literary novelist like Claire Messud mocks the notion that fictional characters should be someone we'd like to be friends with, writers of popular fiction attack her for snootiness.

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Movie Reviews
1:26 pm
Thu May 8, 2014

Two Italys Take A Road Trip In 'Il Sorpasso'

Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Originally published on Thu May 8, 2014 8:33 pm

If the road movie has a home, it's surely the United States. After all, the settling of America was itself a kind of humongous road picture — all those wagons rolling across the new continent's spectacular vastness. And with our ceaseless love of movement, we became the first people to be transported — in every sense — by the automobile. Small wonder, then, that so many famous Hollywood films, from It Happened One Night to Thelma & Louise, are all about hitting the road.

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Movies
11:07 am
Fri May 2, 2014

Movie Monsters, Monster Movies And Why 'Godzilla' Endures

Critic John Powers writes, "There's an amoral pleasure to be had in watching Godzilla reduce Tokyo to fiery rubble."
Toho The Kobal Collection

Originally published on Wed May 7, 2014 9:59 am

There have been hundreds of monster movies over the years, but only a handful of enduringly great movie monsters. Of those, only two were created for the screen: King Kong, the giant ape atop the Empire State Building, and his Japanese heir, Godzilla, the city-flattening sea monster who's a genuinely terrific pop icon. He not only stars in movies — Hollywood is bringing out a new Godzilla on May 16 — but he's even played basketball with Charles Barkley in a commercial for Nike.

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Book Reviews
3:33 pm
Wed April 16, 2014

Exploring Life's Incurable Soiledness With The Father Of Italian Noir

Crime writer Giorgio Scerbanenco was born in Kiev in 1911, grew up in Rome and worked for decades as a journalist in Milan.
Olycom Melville House

Although there's no rigid dividing line, fans of the crime genre generally fall into two camps. There are those who prefer stories which, after titillating us with dark transgressions, end by restoring order — the show Law & Order is an aptly named example. And then there are those who prefer stories which, even after the mystery is solved, leave you swimming in the murk — think Chinatown. This is the male-dominated realm of noir.

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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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