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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12:47pm

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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12:08pm

Thu October 25, 2012
Book Reviews

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

Originally published on Thu October 25, 2012 1:31 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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9:29am

Mon October 1, 2012
Books

Being 'Joseph Anton,' Rediscovering Salman Rushdie

Originally published on Tue October 9, 2012 8:39 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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10:41am

Fri August 24, 2012
Movie Reviews

How Brazil Lives Now, In 'Neighboring Sounds'

Originally published on Fri August 24, 2012 2:39 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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11:10am

Thu July 26, 2012
Movie Reviews

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

Originally published on Fri July 27, 2012 9:05 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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8:03am

Thu July 12, 2012
Television

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

Originally published on Thu July 12, 2012 1:36 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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10:08am

Thu June 28, 2012
Television

'Louie': TV's Most Original Comedy Returns

Originally published on Thu June 28, 2012 10:50 am

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

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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10:11am

Thu June 21, 2012
Television

'The Newsroom' Caught Up In A Partisan Divide

Originally published on Thu June 21, 2012 10:56 am

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.
HBO

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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10:30am

Wed May 2, 2012
Pop Culture

Sherlock: A Character Who's More Than Elementary

Originally published on Wed May 2, 2012 11:04 am

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

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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9:13am

Tue April 24, 2012
Book Reviews

'Death And The Penguin' Captures Post-Soviet Reality

Originally published on Mon January 27, 2014 9:32 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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12:33pm

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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8:53am

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

9:52am

Thu January 19, 2012
Movie Reviews

In 'Miss Bala,' Bullets And Beauty Pageants Collide

Originally published on Thu January 19, 2012 11:57 am

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

9:48am

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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10:38am

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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9:21am

Fri October 7, 2011
Pop Culture

John Wayne: Icon Of America's Booming Confidence

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American actor John Wayne stands by the street sign honoring his name in Prescott, Ariz. The film star "was one of the defining Americans of the 20th century," says critic John Powers.

Fox Photos Getty Images

Earlier this year, the Harris Poll released its annual list of America's 10 favorite movie stars. There, among today's big names — Depp and Jolie and Clooney — was a lone name from the past: John Wayne. He finished third — 32 years after his death. Such enduring popularity served as a reminder that Wayne wasn't merely a towering movie star, he was one of the defining Americans of the 20th Century.

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9:43am

Wed September 21, 2011
Book Reviews

Roger Ebert: A Critic Reflects On 'Life Itself'

Pulitzer Prize-winning movie critic Roger Ebert works in his office at the WTTW-TV studios in Chicago in January 2011.
Charles Rex Arbogast AP Photo

You can divide famous people into two broad categories. Those who find fame a burden and those who take it like a tonic. Roger Ebert is one of the latter. That rarest of creatures — a film critic everyone knows — he really enjoys being Roger Ebert.

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9:53am

Wed August 24, 2011
Movies

'Scarface': Over-The-Top, But Ahead Of Its Time

Critic John Powers says Al Pacino, who played Antonio Montana in the 1983 gangster film Scarface, gave a "performance the size of a Caribbean cruise ship."
Universal Studios

Back in school, I was always amused to read about classics that were dismissed when they first came out — you know, how Moby Dick wrecked Herman Melville's literary career or how The Wizard of Oz was considered a disappointment when it was first released. I naturally assumed that, had I been around back then, I wouldn't have missed the boat like that.

But that was before I became a critic and discovered that, over the years, you wind up with a pocketful of unused tickets from all the boats you've missed.

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