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Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Rebecca Hall, and the floating head of Johnny Depp in Transcendence. (Warner Brothers Pictures)

The Ambitious Drive To Do Too Much Too Fast, On Screen And Off

by Ian Buckwalter
Apr 17, 2014

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Transcendence seems like the perfect film for Wally Pfister to kick off his career as a director. Pfister emerged as one of the best cinematographers in the business through his collaborations with Christopher Nolan (which also won him an Oscar, for Inception), and one of the hallmarks of that collaboration has been their dogged commitment to shooting on film rather than digitally, even as the industry has rapidly abandoned the 20th century technology. With Transcendence, a science-fiction tale about an artificial digital intelligence putting our old-fashioned analog intelligence at risk of eradication, Pfister gets to play out that philosophical battle at a level with life-or-death stakes.

He establishes Will Caster (Johnny Depp) as a man with feet on both sides of that divide: He's the world's leading researcher in artificial intelligence technology, a man whose life is devoted to creating consciousness out of circuit boards, but his sanctuary at home is a lush green garden where he listens to old LPs on a record player.

Caster fits neatly into sci-fi archetype as a scientist interested in the noble pursuit of pure knowledge — it's how that knowledge is used by others that winds up becoming a problem. As he says at one speaking engagement, it's his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) who wants to change the world; he just wants to understand it.

Not everyone views his intentions as so honorable, and when an organization known as RIFT (Revolutionary Independence from Technology), takes out most of his colleagues in a coordinated attack and leaves him with one month to live, it's Evelyn who suggests using his AI technology to allow the contents of his mind to live on after his body has died. Is the technology ready to house the fullness of a human mind? Their friend and technological ethicist Max (Paul Bettany) raises some cautionary objections, but Evelyn insists. What could really go wrong with such good intentions?

Plenty, as it turns out. As Caster's consciousness and processing power grows, so does its malevolent danger, and the story begins to draw on a variety of deadly sci-fi influences, from 2001: A Space Odyssey (Depp particularly seems to be consciously channeling HAL's creepy placidity once he is reborn into ones and zeros) to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But as it turns out, the more relevant (and gentler) touchstone is more recent: Not unlike last year's Her, what the film really hinges on is the tricky notion of love between flesh and blood humans and sentient machines.

All of this feels not unlike Christopher Nolan's own films: grand, gorgeous works filled with stunning imagery that are as full of Big Ideas as they are Big Entertainment. Regular Nolan cast members like Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman (as an FBI agent and another tech researcher, respectively) bolster that notion. But what's harder to borrow is the director's gift for telling those big stories so effortlessly, and it's here where Pfister and Transcendence stumble hard.

Transcendence has hints of a richly complex story, but too often feels content just dumping the pieces of its puzzle out on the table without doing much assembly - or even making sure all the pieces are even there. Eliding certain details and allowing the imagination of the viewer to fill in blanks is essential to any fiction, science especially, but too often Pfister's choices gloss over things like essential character development or even basic cues for the passage of time - the massive underground compound that eventually houses Will's mind feels as though it blinks into existence in a matter of days.

Without real engagement with the characters, no matter how pretty the movie is (and it's very, very pretty), it can't help but feel hollow, and more than a little dull. So while the subject matter might be well matched to Pfister's particular interests, it's hard to get around the fact that no matter how much time he's spent behind a camera, this is still his first time as director. Nolan started small, on films like Following and Memento, before trying his hand at anything remotely this ambitious. Pfister's years spent developing a visual style may be visible right up there on the screen, but so too are the years he hasn't yet spent controlling all aspects of the storytelling process. Evelyn isn't the only one here who tries reaching too high, too fast.

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There are signs around the reservoirs in Portland's Mount Tabor Park that warn against putting anything in the water. They apparently didn't dissuade one young man from urinating into the city's drinking supply this week. (The Oregonian/Landov)

One Man's Pee Pushes Portland To Flush 38M Gallons Of Water

Apr 17, 2014

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Though they concede that it's unlikely the public was endangered, officials in Portland, Ore., have decided to drain 38 million gallons of water from a reservoir after a young man was observed urinating into it on Wednesday.

Our colleagues at Oregon Public Broadcasting note that the crime was caught on video — from a distance. "Three unidentified men," OPB writes, "were cited for trespassing after being stopped at the site early Wednesday morning. One was also cited for public urination. The Multnomah County District Attorney's Office will decide whether to pursue criminal charges."

After Portland Water Bureau officials saw what happened, they decided the water in the kidney-shaped reservoir needs to go.

According to The Oregonian, "Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish says flushing 38 million gallons of water after a man urinated in the Mt. Tabor Reservoir system is the correct call, even if it prompts complaints that the city is overreacting or wasting water."

"I didn't have a choice," Fish said, according to the newspaper. "I don't have the luxury of slicing it too thin when there's a potential risk, however small, to public health. Frankly, it's one of those calls where you know you're likely to be criticized no matter what. The professionals who report to me all said, 'Dump the water. Don't take any chances.' It's the conservative but correct call."

The open reservoirs at the facility, OPB reports, "hold water that has already been treated and goes directly into mains for distribution to customers."

This is not the first time Portland has dealt with such a problem. In 2011 a man was caught after urinating into a reservoir. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of "misuse of a reservoir." The Oregonian says the guilty reliever was sentenced to 24 hours of community service at a local food pantry.

The Oregonian has also noted that:

"Strange things end up in Portland's water supply all the time, with minimal risk or impact to users. ... In 2008, a man and a woman caught skinny dipping in Mt. Tabor were sentenced to 16 hours of community service each. ...

"The federal government has ordered Portland and other cities with open-air reservoirs to cover them. City leaders are waiting on results of a May ballot measure that could shift control of the Water Bureau from the City Council to a new independently elected board to decide how to proceed."

The 2011 flushing and cleanup cost about $35,000, according to the newspaper. Officials aren't sure how much this latest incident will cost the city.

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Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) investigators canvas the London, Ontario, neighborhood around the home of Stephen Solis-Reyes, who has been charged in connection with exploiting the "Heartbleed" bug. (Reuters/Landov)

Police In Canada Make Arrest Related To 'Heartbleed' Bug

Apr 17, 2014

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A 19-year-old alleged hacker has been arrested and his computer equipment seized by Canadian police after he purportedly exploited the "Heartbleed" bug vulnerability to steal confidential information from the country's tax collection agency.

"Heartbleed," which exploits a security gap in a popular open-source encryption program, was discovered last week, forcing companies to shore up their security and millions to update passwords. NPR's All Tech Considered did a very thorough explainer last week, which you can read here, as well as a 'What Now?' story, here.

The Globe and Mail says Stephen Arthuro Solis-Reyes, a computer science student, was arrested at his London, Ontario, home and charged with one count of mischief in relation to data.

Solis-Reyes is alleged to have exploited the Heartbleed vulnerability to steal sensitive information, such as social security numbers, from servers of the Canada Revenue Agency, the equivalent of the United States' IRS.

The Globe and Mail describes Solis-Reyes as "a second-year student at the University of Western Ontario. In 2012, he graduated from a London high school, Mother Teresa Catholic Secondary.

"He was part of a team from his secondary school that came first in a programming competition at the London District Catholic School Board. He is also the creator of a BlackBerry phone app that solves Sudoku puzzles, which was released while he was still in high school."

In a statement, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, said it treated the security breach "as a high priority case and mobilized the necessary resources to resolve the matter as quickly as possible."

"Investigators from National Division, along with our counterparts in 'O' Division, have been working tirelessly over the last four days analyzing data, following leads, conducting interviews, obtaining and executing legal authorizations and liaising with our partners," assistant commissioner Gilles Michaud said.

The Washington Post says:

"The Heartbleed bug put many consumers' user names and passwords at risk. Undetected for two years, the bug quietly undermined the basic security of the Internet by leaving a gap in OpenSSL, an encryption technology used widely by businesses to protect sensitive data. By some estimates, the bug affected as much as two-thirds of the Internet; the flaw prompted thousands of Web users to change their passwords on Google, Yahoo, Facebook and other major services."

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Ashlee Hardee Brown and her husband Jimmy Brown front Matrimony. (Mountain Stage)

Matrimony On Mountain Stage

Apr 17, 2014

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Ashlee's brothers, Jordan and CJ (center and right) also play in the band. Jimmy Brown was born in Northern Ireland and arrived in the U.S. via China. In Charlotte, N.C., Jimmy met Ashlee Hardee, who would become his musical partner and wife. The group blends rock with folk traditions from Ireland and North America. Matrimony.

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Matrimony make their first appearance on Mountain Stage, recorded live at the Culture Center Theater in Charleston, W.Va.

A true family band, Matrimony is fronted by the husband and wife duo of Jimmy Brown and Ashlee Hardee Brown, along with Ashlee's brothers Jordan Hardee and CJ Hardee. Jimmy Brown was born in Northern Ireland and came to Charlotte, N.C. — where he met his wife and musical partner — via China. Melding rock, country, gospel and longstanding folk traditions from Ireland and North America, the group released its EP The Storm & The Eye in 2010. The group will release Montibello Memories May 6 and tour the U.S. for the remainder of the month.

Set List

  • Southern Skies
  • Mecklenburg County Jail
  • Obey Your Guns
  • See the Light
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Ashlee Hardee Brown and her husband Jimmy Brown front Matrimony. (Mountain Stage)

Fate Of Girls Abducted In Nigeria Now Uncertain

Apr 17, 2014

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Ashlee's brothers, Jordan and CJ (center and right) also play in the band. Jimmy Brown was born in Northern Ireland and arrived in the U.S. via China. In Charlotte, N.C., Jimmy met Ashlee Hardee, who would become his musical partner and wife. The group blends rock with folk traditions from Ireland and North America. Matrimony.

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A Nigerian school principal says searchers are still looking for about 100 girls and young women abducted by Islamist extremists, even though the nation's military has said all but eight of the victims are now safe and accounted for.

"We are still waiting and praying for the safe return of the students ... the security people, especially the vigilantes and the well-meaning volunteers of Gwoza are still out searching for them," Principal Asabe Kwambura told The Associated Press on Thursday. The girls were taken by force from her school on Monday.

There was word from authorities late Wednesday, as we reported, that all but eight of the girls had either escaped or been rescued. But Kwambura says only 14 girls have returned to their homes or school in the town of Chibok.

Nigerian authorities suspect the radical Islamist group Boko Haram is behind the abductions. It objects to Western culture, and in particular Western schools.

Boko Haram also is being blamed for a deadly attack Monday near Nigeria's capital, Abuja. More than 70 people were killed and dozens more injured when a bomb went off at a bus station. The explosion set off other blasts as vehicles in the vicinity burned.

We have posted about Boko Haram many times in the past two years. Among previous attacks blamed on that group:

— February 2014. More Than Two Dozen Boys Killed In Attack On Nigerian School.

— September 2013. Militants Kill Students In Dorms At Nigerian College.

— June 2012. Church Bombings And Reprisal Killings In Nigeria.

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