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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. His latest book, WKW: The Cinema of Wong Kar Wai (co-written with Wong Kar Wai), is an April 2016 release by Rizzoli.

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

If any image haunts TV news, and perhaps our conscience, it's the seemingly ceaseless river of migrants seeking refuge from war, dictatorship and poverty. These desperate souls inspire pity, fear and election-year arguments about whether to offer them welcome or keep them out. Not surprisingly, many artists feel compelled to confront this refugee crisis. But the big question is: How do you engage a humanitarian tragedy without haranguing the audience or laying on a guilt trip? You get...

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air .

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air . TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, has a review of "13th," Ava DuVernay's new documentary that opened the New York Film Festival and is currently playing in selected theaters and on Netflix. In "13th," DuVernay, who's best known for directing "Selma," explores how the United States became the country with the world's largest prison population and why a hugely disproportional number of those prisoners...

I have a friend in London who's at war with her car's GPS. Although she nearly always puts it on, she's driven mad by its voice, which is female, and refuses to follow its directions. She spends whole trips arguing with, barking at, and sometimes cursing this imaginary woman. She'd never be this rude to an actual human being. But, of course, a GPS doesn't have feelings. But what if it did? That's one of the many timely questions raised by Westworld , the darkly exciting new series...

Television used to be careful when it told fictional stories about the presidency. It was bound by a sense of decorum. But things changed forever with the famous commercial for the movie Independence Day that wowed those watching the 1996 Super Bowl by blowing the White House sky high. Ever since, presidents have been fair game. You can portray them as thugs, schemers or murderers — or knock them off to boost ratings. The latest show to occupy the White House is Designated...

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air . DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The new film comedy "War Dogs" takes a new angle on America's wars in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Directed by Todd Phillips, who's best known for "The Hangover," it stars Jonah Hill and Miles Teller as two unlikely arms dealers. Our critic at large John Powers says the movie's at its best when the characters are at their worst. JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: War may be hell, but it can be heaven for...

Novelists have always put their heroines through awful ordeals. But over time, these tribulations change. Where the 19 th Century was filled with fictional women trapped in punishing marriages — think of Middlemarch or The Portrait of a Lady — today's heroines face trials that are bigger, more political, and more physically demanding. They fight in hunger games. This fight takes a different form in The Natural Way of Things , a ferocious new novel by the...

When most of us think about computer hacking, we picture Julian Assange leaking government secrets or a shadowy, bad-shave crook in some former Soviet republic hoovering up credit card info from a chain store. But while folks like these do stir up all manner of trouble, a much deeper danger lies elsewhere. That danger is the theme of Zero Days , a chilling new film by Alex Gibney , who sometimes seems to turn out documentaries as quickly as tweets. This latest one may be his finest...

To judge from our media coverage, you'd think that Mexico isn't so much a country as a problem. But if you look beyond the endless talk of drug wars and The Wall , you discover that Mexico has a booming culture. In recent years, there's been an explosion of literary talent — from the sly provocateur Mario Bellatin to the brainy and funny Valeria Luiselli . This writing makes most American literary fiction feel pale and cannily packaged. Much of this work is now appearing in English thanks to...

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air .

Every movie is set somewhere, yet most movies feel as if they're happening nowhere at all. They're set in a Manhattan so generic that the filming was actually done in Toronto, or in a Paris we only know is Paris because we get a shot of the Eiffel Tower, or in an imaginary small town from some unnamed state whose purpose is to be every small town. Such settings have no presence, no weight, no humidity, no purpose — they're background. If you want to enjoy a location being used properly — and...

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air .

Brazil has been in the news a lot these days, but not for happy reasons. As it prepares to host the Olympics this August, the economy is tanking, the president is heading toward impeachment and the country has become ground zero for the Zika virus. All this is enough to make one recall Charles de Gaulle's famously dismissive remark, "Brazil is not a serious country." He was, of course, wrong. Brazil is one of the world's greatest and most exciting cultures, one in which the drama of modernity...

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air .

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air . Transcript TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Our critic-at-large John Powers has a review of a new graphic novel that he describes as an astonishing work of imagination. It's by the Singaporean writer and illustrator Sonny Liew, who was born in Malaysia, studied philosophy at Cambridge University and is best known in the U.S. for his DC Comics series Doctor Fate about an Egyptian-American superhero. His new graphic novel, his...

Back in the early 1960s, Philip Roth wrote a famous essay declaring that modern American life had gotten so delirious that it dwarfed fiction's ability to match it. Never did his words seem truer than in 1994, when O.J. Simpson — football god, mediocre movie actor and amiable pitchman for Hertz — was charged with butchering his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. From the discovery of the bodies in well-heeled Brentwood to the rapid verdict of "not guilty" — which...

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air . Transcript DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. From James Bond to George Smiley, England's known for its attraction spy stories. The latest is "London Spy," a new series beginning tonight on BBC America. It stars Ben Whishaw as a young clubber who suddenly finds himself plunged into the middle high-level espionage. Our critic-at-large John Powers has seen all five episodes. He says this is a spy thriller unlike any he's ever seen....

"Money doesn't talk," said Bob Dylan. "It swears." This is almost literally true in the blizzard of books, movies and TV shows about our financial one-percenters. If our wolves of Wall Street love anything more than obscene wealth, it's obscene language. These guys — and they are mainly guys — don't trust anyone who's shy about dropping F-bombs. Who's effing who — and how — is one of the governing metaphors of Billions , a new Showtime series whose opening shot features one...

It's that time of the year when critics proudly unveil their "10 Best" lists. But every December, I find myself compiling a private list that's different and guiltier. I call it my Ghost List, and it's composed of all the terrific things I've read, watched or heard that, for reasons ranging from bad timing to laziness — yes, critics can be lazy — I didn't get around to praising on Fresh Air . This year, I've decided to rectify that by conjuring up six ghosts I wish I'd shared with...

The most intractable conflict in modern life is the battle between those who want society to be somehow pure — religiously, say, or racially — and those who see society as an ever-changing mix and actually prefer it that way. You could hardly find a more horrific example of this split than the Islamic State's terror attack on the proudly diverse city of Paris. We find a less bloody version of this conflict in Mustang , the debut feature of the gifted young female director Deniz Gamze...

If you asked me the difference between modern American novels and modern French ones, I'd start by saying, the French ones are shorter. Now, I realize this isn't universally true — Proust's In Search of Lost Time makes The Great Gatsby look as thin as a SIM card. But where our writers tend to fatten their books in hopes of the Great American Novel, France has a taste for elegant concision that runs from Gide through Camus to the 2014 Nobel Laureate, Patrick Modiano. French...

Copyright 2015 Fresh Air. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/ . Transcript TERRY GROSS, HOST: Steven Spielberg's latest film, "Bridge of Spies," opened over the weekend to nearly universal acclaim. Set during the Cold War, the movie stars Tom Hanks as an American attorney who finds himself suddenly plunged into the world of espionage. Our critic at large, John Powers, admires the film and its treatment of the Cold War. JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: If you're old enough to...

If you asked me the scariest place I've ever been, I would instantly say the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, whose cruel past has led to a disastrous present. I'll never forget lying in my hotel bed and hearing the nightly machine gun fire on the nearby streets. And this was during peacetime, not during Congo's two largely ignored wars of the 1990s and early 2000s that killed three times as many people as the current wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria combined. I've read a lot...

If the detective was the defining pop hero of the 20th century, in the 21st, it's the hacker. From The Matrix to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — not to mention Julian Assange and Edward Snowden — hackers have become inescapable. But where detectives work to restore social order, hackers manipulate all those ethereal ones and zeroes to disrupt and maybe even overthrow it. You find this radicalism and much more in USA Network's Mr. Robot, the addictive new psychological thriller...

After the Republicans held their lively first debate, you heard people saying what they always say nowadays — that our media-driven political discourse has become shallow and petty, even clownish. Hearing this, an innocent young person might believe that, not so long ago, America was a latter-day Athens in which political arguments were magnificent in their purity and eloquence. For a useful antidote to this idea, I recommend Best of Enemies , a new documentary by Robert Gordon and...

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/. Transcript TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The war on Mexican drug cartels has been going on for so long and so violently, it's become a recurring feature of American popular culture, whether in TV shows like "The Bridge" and "Breaking Bad," or movies like Oliver Stone's "Savages." There are two new works on the subject - the documentary film "Cartel Land" by Matthew Heineman, and the thriller "The Cartel" by Don Winslow....

Back in college English, I was taught that it was foolish to think that fictional characters have any reality beyond the page. You shouldn't speculate about how many children Lady Macbeth had or what job Holden Caulfield wound up doing as a grown-up. Well, maybe not. But over the past half century, actual fiction writers have enjoyed lifting characters from famous books and fleshing out their lives — you know, Jean Rhys telling the back story of Rochester's mad wife from Jane Eyre ...

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/. Transcript TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The Indian director Satyajit Ray, who died in 1992, first came to prominence in the 1950s with the three films known as "The Apu Trilogy," which quickly became an international touchstone. Most people have never seen a good print of these films, but now there's a new digital restoration done by The Criterion Collection and the archive branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and...

In his famous essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler put down the classic British mystery, making fun of its arcane killings and hokey air of gentility. He preferred the tough American style and praised Dashiell Hammett for, as he put it, taking murder out of the vicar's rose garden and dropping it in the alley where it belonged. The man who did the same for British mysteries was Ted Lewis. Between 1965 and 1980, Lewis wrote nine novels whose gritty, propulsive storytelling would...

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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