The worst thing about making a post-Avengers Marvel movie is how far ahead of the game you are when you start. Your film will be marketed with brute force, treated as arguably the biggest opening of the summer, reviewed everywhere, and very likely to land among the most commercially successful films of the year, whether or not you do anything interesting with it. From a professional development standpoint, it wouldn't be unreasonable to describe your task as "don't screw up." There's no reason for that not to inspire cautious tiptoeing, for it not to motivate a precise tonal copy of what's worked in films like Iron Man and The Avengers, and ultimately for it not to lead to a zillion-dollar effort to ensure a solid, uninteresting base hit, creatively speaking.
So it's particularly surprising how often Guardians Of The Galaxy feels very unlike other Marvel movies and other comic-book movies.
Directed by James Gunn (who also directed the offbeat superhero comedy Super) and written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, Guardians introduces us to Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a capable and ambivalent wisecracking thief still working for the aliens who abducted him from Earth as a little boy, shortly after the death of his mother. As wisecracking thieves always do, Quill finds himself in a jam, and not long after, he's in jail with the mysterious and fearless Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the grief-stricken and huge Drax (Dave Bautista), a big walking tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and the particularly mercenary Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper). They soon find a common purpose, and we're off. There's an orb - oh, there's always an orb - and there's a preening and pronouncing bad guy (Lee Pace) who speaks at all times as if he's an action figure being waved around and given voice by a growling kid who's just recently discovered comics, and there's a message about the importance of friendship and teamwork.
What distinguishes Guardians Of The Galaxy is its tone, which arrives early in the form of the '70s mixtapes that Quill got from his mom, which he still blasts on his adored Sony Walkman. After the brief prologue, we first find him kicking and cool-guy-dancing through the puddles of a faraway planet while Redbone's "Come And Get Your Love" plays. He's very much a Marvel hero, but Pratt - a tremendously charismatic actor whose work as the huge-hearted and slightly foggy-headed Andy Dwyer on Parks And Recreation foreshadowed some of what he's doing here - gives him both a shaggier charm and a much more specifically comedic carriage than most Marvel heroes. This is not the suave, swaggering wit of Tony Stark; it is a much more uncertain and blithely goofy thing.
The simple fact that Guardians Of The Galaxy is closer to a pure comedy is what distinguishes it most. Iron Man and The Avengers certainly are witty, but they're not comedies, and this is. Where those films largely depend on well-timed ironic understatement and the occasional Hulk-on-Loki beatdown for their chuckles, this movie has jokes. Lots of jokes. Plain old jokes. Laugh lines. Punchy cuts between serious action sequences and bone-dry, deadpan takes. It has wonderful face-pulling. It has mechanical-eyeball comedy.
What comes through so delightfully is a balance between the weary, sometimes skeptical but deeply affectionate good will of adults who love an enjoyable blockbuster and the campy, self-serious exploration of good and evil that kids can happily bathe in before they start to think of comics as fundamentally a capitalist enterprise. You could see this movie and then have a long debate over exactly what Pace is doing, how in on the joke he is, and how much he knows that intensity-wise, he's doing Release The Kraken MULTIPLIED by Emperor Palpatine TIMES Loki PLUS everybody who gets a mask pulled off his head at the end of a Scooby-Doo cartoon. It's not that he's not doing a real villain, but he's also doing the villain, the idea of a comic-book villain. While he's giving it all he's got when it comes to menace, his delicious super-ferocity is meant to work hand-in-glove with the more obviously comedic stuff that Quill's team is doing. (Interestingly, the constantly joke-cracking Rocket is probably the least successful invention on the team; Groot's limited capacity for comedy - he's a tree, remember - becomes the funniest bit of all.)
There's plenty of heart in Guardians, but it gets its emotional heft largely from the warmth that this kind of comedy inherently contains. Genuinely funny people engender sympathy (see the witty Hans in Die Hard), so comedy isn't just for giggles, it's also for resonance. But here's the thing: it's fun. F-U-N. Remember F-U-N? The thing that blockbusters used to be before they started crushing cities full of innocent people and seemingly forgetting all about them? The thing that the Richard Donner Superman was? The thing that used to at least be one of the most important big-money-movie elements, alongside bloodletting, franchising, and an unrelenting, ashen grimness that could be rounded off to approximate seriousness of purpose?
Yeah. Fun! I missed it.
On the downside, Guardians is probably least inventive in its aesthetic: it doesn't play like a Marvel movie, but its visuals sure look like one. Orbs, explosions, huge spacecraft ... all of this has been seen. There are a handful of very pretty shots - Gunn seems to have a fondness for floating and uses it in several places to lovely effect - and there's a nicely manic fight sequence between Quill and Gamora early on. But the branding of the Marvel Universe is certainly more consistent and more easily felt visually than tonally.
That music, on the other hand, is deftly chosen. Everybody from Stanley Kubrick to Michael Moore has done the bit where you play upbeat music over downbeat images for a kick of irony, but there are a few places in Guardians where songs, including "Hooked On A Feeling" (admittedly a well-worn weapon at this point), create a more complex sensation than the expected orchestral soundtrack would have. And while the other Marvel movies are similarly contemporary, they're also much more Earth-bound; it's a funny feeling - in a good way - to see people having epic battles over ancient artifacts in space and have the music create such a temporal link to this particular man's lost life on Earth.
It's easy to create a clean break between the satisfaction of popular entertainment and the rewards of great art, and that divide, while not quite as easy to define as it seems, is certainly genuine. What's much shakier is the idea that the satisfaction of popular entertainment is valueless while the rewards of great art matter. There's always been a place for F.U.N. - it's always been one of the reasons people seek out culture. To see it done really, really well, with purpose and energy and wit, is itself awfully rewarding.
Perhaps signaling a widening of its offensive in Gaza, Israel called up 16,000 reservists on Thursday. That means Israel has activated 86,000 reservists since the conflict started.
USA Today reports that at the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to destroy tunnels built by Hamas "with our without a ceasefire."
"Netanyahu said he won't accept any truce that will not allow Israel to achieve its goal of destroying the tunnel network it says is used to carry out attacks inside Israel," the paper reports. "Hamas said it will only lay down arms once Israel and Egypt give guarantees that a seven-year Gaza border blockade will be lifted."
With that, here's what you need to know as the conflict enters its 24th day:
— A Few Days From Destroying Tunnels:
Reuters reports that Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, chief of Israeli forces in Gaza, said that the Israeli army was "a few days away from destroying all the attack tunnels."
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson had a piece last night about network of tunnels:
— The Peace Process:
Correspondent Linda Gradstein tells our Newscast unit that there is still talk of a cease-fire.
"An Israeli delegation arrived yesterday in Cairo and a Palestinian delegation headed by President Mahmoud Abbas and including officials from Hamas and Islamic Jihad is due to arrive in Egypt today," Linda reports.
— The Death Toll:
Citing the Palestinian Ministry of Health, NPR's Emily Harris reports the death toll in Gaza is 1,363 with 7,680 injured.
Israeli deaths held steady at 59, which includes three civilians.
— A U.N. Official Breaks Down:
It killed more than a dozen and the U.N. condemned the shelling, saying the "world stands disgraced."
Chris Gunness, UNRWA spokesman, was giving an interview with Al-Jazeera when it all became too much and he broke down in tears:
Good morning, here are our early stories:
And here are more early headlines:
Israeli Leader Vows To Destroy Militant Tunnels In Gaza. (VOA)
Wikileaks Discloses Australian Gag Order On Corruption Trial. (Guardian)
Five New Wildfires Break Out In Oregon, Washington State. (Oregonian)
L.A. Water Main Break Near UCLA Doubles To 20 Million Gallons Spilled. (KPCC)
U.S. Peace Corps Withdraws From West Africa Because Of Ebola. (Time)
Death Toll Rises In Indian Landslide That Buried Village. (AP)
Report: Target Hires New CEO From PepsiCo Ranks. (Wall Street Journal)
New Hampshire Fisherman Catches Rare Calico Lobster. (WPRI)
Technology - and particularly smartphones - could reshape safety efforts on college campuses. At least that's the hope of some developers.
Several new apps offer quick ways for college students facing unsafe or uncomfortable situations to reach out to their peers, connect with resources on campus and in their communities, or notify law enforcement.
These apps for the most part target sexual assault and rape, amid growing national concern about the prevalence of incidents and criticism of the ways colleges and universities are handling them.
Apps like Circle of 6, born out of a recent White House technology challenge, are now in use on campuses across the country.
You might think: Why does a student who feels unsafe need an app? You can't walk around a campus without seeing one of those blue-light call buttons.
The problem is that hardly anyone uses those, says Nancy Schwartzman, the creator of Circle of 6. What college students do use, she says, is a cell phone.
"Most young people first report sexual assault to a friend or a peer, not to the police or a blue safety light," Schwartzman says. "And they're always on their phone."
Who's In Your Circle?
Circle of 6 was born out of the 2011 "Apps Against Abuse" challenge, a partnership between the Office of the Vice President, the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Here's how it works: A student who downloads the app picks six trusted friends to join a "circle." Then, if faced with an unsafe or dangerous situation, they can send a text to those friends with just two clicks.
They can quickly choose from among several pre-written messages. For example, "Call me and pretend you need me. I need an interruption." The texts even get more specific, like "Come and get me. I need help getting home safely. Call when you're close." That text automatically includes the sender's GPS location.
Circle of 6 allows students to access their personal networks - but also gives them the ability to tap into broader networks, like national hotlines and emergency numbers.
And it was created by sexual assault survivors.
"I know what I would have wanted," Schwartzman says. "I don't want to have to search through my phone and find out who's around. I've already had this conversation with six people I trust."
What's On The Market?
While Circle of 6 was one of the earliest apps to target campus sexual assault, many others have flooded app stores.
Some, like Here For You are being created by colleges. That app, from Loyola University in Chicago, provides students with resources if they're a victim of assault, as well as information on how to help a friend.
Created by a survivor of the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, LiveSafe allows students to track crimes on campus. Users can report incidents, view a map and a list of reported activity, broadcast their location to family or friends for safety, or call or send a message to 911 or campus police. Students can also submit photos or audio to go along with a report.
LiveSafe also allows anonymous reporting - something its founders say might make college students more apt to report bullying, rape or sexual assault.
Then there's Kitestring, which doesn't specifically say it's targeting colleges, but has a similar bent. You provide the app with emergency contact numbers in the setup phase, then let it know when you're going out alone — say, on a run or walking home from the library — and how long it will take you to reach your destination. At that time, the app texts you to check in. If you don't respond, it alerts your emergency contacts.
Of course, none of these are perfect solutions.
They all depend on having a charged cell phone and enough signal to get a message out. Many are limited by phone platform. And, in the case of Kitestring, it's targeting students who are traveling alone. Statistics show that most rapes and assaults are perpetrated by acquaintances, not the stranger jumping out of the bushes as is often suggested in popular culture.
But they do provide students with a tangible tool that they previously lacked and proponents say they can be part of a comprehensive approach by colleges to curb instances of rape and assault.
"It's not a magic bullet. Prevention programming that's well done and smart and provocative and continuous is desperately needed," Schwartzman says.
Does It Work?
So students have smartphone apps in their hands, but do they actually help prevent assaults?
That's only part of the point, Schwartzman says. The other potential benefit for these tools, she says, is that they can help students get information about resources when an assault does happen.
Circle of 6 seeks to "put all the information that can help enhance safety in one place that's easy to find," Schwartzman says. Otherwise, she adds, "it's very confusing. Every campus is different."
She envisions Circle of 6 not as some kind of silver bullet, but part of a suite of options for students. And she means all students. Not just those who are assaulted, but their friends and classmates, too.
While these apps are first and foremost tools for students, colleges might also be able to learn something. At least that's the hope at Williams College in Massachusetts.
Williams is bringing Circle of 6 to its campus for a two-year pilot program, says Meg Bossong, the college's director of sexual assault prevention and response. The goal is to get real-time data that can inform future bystander education programming on campus.
So what does that mean, exactly? In a lot of ways, bystander intervention is just common sense. For example, if you're at a bar and see an intoxicated woman being harassed or groped by a man, the bystander should step in, intervene, and get the target out of the situation.
Circle of 6 and other apps are adding a technical aspect here. Instead of seeing bad behavior up close, student "bystanders" are responding to a text.
The pilot program at Williams will give students access to a customized version of the app. Instead of national hotlines and resources, they'll have the option to connect with resources locally or right on campus.
In return, Circle of 6 will provide Williams with data, Bossong explains, that the school will use to see not just how many students are using the app, but how they're using it.
"I think we're at a point where we need more data about how to best deploy bystander work on our campus," Bossong adds. "It's not just about the specific bystander skills, it's building a culture that is less accepting and less tolerant of sexual violence."
Thinking Outside The Phone
One campus safety tool that's still in the works isn't pocket-sized or smartphone based.
Callisto is an online reporting system for survivors of sexual assault that's still in development. The mission, according to Jessica Ladd, one of the creators, is to make it more empowering to report a sexual assault.
Ladd herself is a sexual assault survivor, and says her own reporting experience was less than empowering.
"It was confusing to know where to go, I wasn't even sure why I was doing it," she says. "It took me almost two years to report it. For many survivors it can take a long period of time. You don't always record what happened to you right after."
With Callisto, she says, survivors will go online, fill out a form documenting their assault and, respond to questions similar to those a law enforcement or campus official would ask. The site would then provide them with reporting options.
At that point, they could choose to file a report, or save it for later. They would also have a third option: to have their report submitted automatically if another person reports sexual violence at the hands of the same assailant.
"A lot of people who do report right now often do it because they heard through the rumor mill somehow or from a college administrator that their assailants have assaulted someone else," Ladd says.
While Callisto is still in development — it was presented at the recent White House Data Jam — Ladd says her goal is to launch a pilot in March.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has some good news this morning:
Remember, experts from Australia and The Netherlands have been trying to get to the debris field of the downed Malaysia Airlines jet in eastern Ukraine for a week. Every time they attempted a trip, they were thwarted by heavy fighting.
Speaking to CNN, OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw said that for the first time senior experts were at the scene of the tragedy to begin their investigation.
Bociurkiw said he was standing at the perimeter of the field and he could still smell the stench of the remains.
It was two weeks ago that the U.S. says Ukrainian rebels fired a missile that downed a Malaysia Airlines 777 carrying 298 passengers. Some of the remains of the dead have already been flown out of Ukraine, but some still languished in that open field.
The team, Bociurkiw said, is prepared to recover those remains.
"We will finally give those remains proper care and dignity," Bociurkiw said.
Giving experts access to the site became an international affair. Earlier this month, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously on a resolution that called for unrestricted access to the scene for investigators.
It was just a few days ago that Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the separatists who control that area of Ukraine. He said by continuing their fighting and keeping experts away from the debris field, they "displayed an appalling disregard for human decency."
Bociurkiw told CNN he was confident that the Dutch and Australian experts would now have continued access to the site.
Update at 8:05 a.m. ET. Suspending Military Operations:
NPR's Corey Flintoff reports that Ukraine has suspended military operations in the area.
Reporting from Moscow, Corey filed this report for our Newscast unit:
"The Ukrainian government said on its website that it is stopping fighting in response to an appeal from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
"The statement said that Ukrainian soldiers will only shoot back if their positions are attacked. Aviation experts and police from the Netherlands, Australia and Malaysia have been trying to reach the wreckage site for days, but have been turned back by heavy fighting.
"Meanwhile, experts from Russia's aviation agency say they will attempt to join the investigation, if it's safe to reach the wreckage site.
"Dutch and Ukrainian experts declined to comment on the Russian offer."