Great Opening Scenes

With the Academy Awards coming up later this month, my attention has turned (more than usual) to movies. I often like to come up with “favorites” lists…such as “What are my favorite movie quotes?” or “What are my favorite movie theme songs?” The other day, a new one cropped up: “What are my favorite opening scenes?” That is, what are the opening scenes that grabbed me right out of the gate, scenes so good that I load the movie’s DVD just so I can play that scene and enjoy it all again?

In putting together a list, I discovered that, for some movies, the opening scene was the best part of the movie; it was all downhill from there. In other cases, the scene was just the initial salvo of the overall great movie that would follow. In either case, here are some of my favorites (in no particular order):

Cliffhanger. This almost defines great opening scenes. The rescue sequence on the rope line conveyed a sense of vertigo and terror that still lives with me today. Unfortunately, this was one of those instances where the rest of the film turned out to be disappointing in comparison.

Silverado. The claustrophobic shoot-out in the cabin, without a spoken word, was spectacularly filmed. When Scott Glenn leaves the cabin and the camera opens up to show the vast western panorama…just super!

West Side Story. A helicopter view of Manhantan, with Leonard Bernstein’s great music playing. The camera travels and eventually zooms in on the Jets in a playground. Thrilling. No stage version could top that for a kick off.

From Russia With Love. The opening scenes in James Bond movies are so distinctive that they almost deserve their own category. It’s hard for me to pick my absolute favorite. Still, I’d go with From Russia With Love. In this scene, it appears as if James Bond has been killed. How could this be? And then…(I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen the movie).

My James Bond runner-up would be The Spy Who Loved Me. The ski sequence (although not quite the very opening, it’s still before the titles run) is one of the best: great action without being so over-the-top as to be unintentionally funny.

Mission Impossible I. I loved the opening sequence to this first Mission Impossible movie because (unlike much of the rest of the movie and totally unlike any of the sequels), it actually follows the format used in the TV show. I especially liked the fade to the match lighting and original Mission Impossible theme music. Yes! The sequels abandoned this…to their detriment.

The Godfather. The opening shot of the face of the mortician (“I love America”) and eventually panning out to show Marlon Brando as the Godfather. The shift from the quiet and dark light of the office to the noise and daylight outside. Great cinematography. About as memorable as opening scenes get.

Actually, the scene is a bit reminiscent of the opening poker game sequence in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which I guess should also be on this list.

Jaws. The scene where the young woman gets…well…eaten by the shark was enough to keep much of America out of the water for years to come.

Saving Private Ryan. In my opinion, the D-Day beach landing remains the most heart-pounding realistic battle scene ever recorded on film.

French Kiss. I noticed there weren’t any comedies here. Maybe it’s not a genre that aspires to great opening scenes. Anyway, French Kiss is at least in the ballpark. The scene on the airplane, with Meg Ryan trying to conquer her fear of flying. And then the punchline: we discover that she really isn’t on a plane at all. Classic.

I gave some thought to adding Return of the Jedi and Raiders of the Lost Ark to this list. But I decided that, as much as I liked them, the opening sequences went on for too long, amounting to more than a “scene” — even by my liberal standards.

I’m sure there are other movies I’m forgetting. But these are the ones that first came to mind.

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Giffords’ Progress and “Miracles”

A recent New York Times article covered the “remarkable progress” of Representative Gabrielle Giffords following the shooting in Tucson:

“In response to a reporter’s question about whether Ms. Giffords’s recovery might be considered miraculous, Dr. G. Michael Lemole Jr., the hospital’s chief of neurosurgery said, ‘Miracles happen every day, and in medicine, we like to attribute them to what we do or what others do around us. A lot of medicine is outside our control. We are wise to acknowledge miracles.'”

Overall, I thought this was an appropriate and reasonable reply. However, given that I am not under the same political and public relations constraints as Dr. Lemole, I would go considerably further:

I don’t believe there is a God that takes a personal interest in the welfare of Representative Giffords. If I believed otherwise, I would then have to ask where was this God during the shooting at the supermarket? If he is so interested in performing miracles on behalf of Rep. Giffords, why didn’t he prevent her from being shot in the first place? And why did he let five other innocent people, including a 9-year-old-girl, meet their death? If God wasn’t willing to prevent this tragedy, there is little reason to believe he has been paying visits to Rep. Giffords’ hospital room.

It is true that Rep. Giffords’ progress is unusual, much more positive at this point than doctors would have expected or predicted. But this does not make it “miraculous” — at least not in any religious sense of the word. Otherwise, we’d also have to look at the equally unusual, unexpected and unpredicted terrible things that occur in hospitals. Things such as the people who “mysteriously” die on the table during what was supposed to be an uneventful routine surgery. Are we to call these miracles as well? Or curses? Or what?

On balance, it seems better to just leave miracles and religion out of the equation altogether. There is always variability in outcomes. Some patients do better than we expect. Others do worse. There is nothing unusual in this. Any surprise in Rep. Giffords’ progress is a consequence of our continuing ignorance, a reminder of how little we still know and how much we have yet to learn about how our bodies work.

I am grateful that Ms. Giffords is doing so well. Her progress is the result of the skilled and hard work of her medical staff, the quick assistance she received from people at the scene of the shooting — and some good fortune regarding the specifics of her injury. Let’s leave it at that.

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Angry Birds Magic Spots

If you play Angry Birds Seasons, you’ll want to know what I am about to reveal!

While working my way through the Seasons Greedings section of Angry Birds Seasons, I would occasionally stumble over something surprising and wonderful. After taking careful aim and releasing my first bird shot on a given level, the bird would hit its target and….bam! All hell would break loose. In an instant, all (or almost all) of the pigs and blocks were destroyed in a massive blast. When the smoke cleared, I saw that I had bagged a new high score — much higher than I could have otherwise attained. It could be tens of thousands of more points than the minimum needed for a 3 star score (see my Angry Birds: The All-Purpose Guide to Three Stars [Part 1 and Part 2] for more on how to achieve 3 star scores).

What was going on? I didn’t know. So I went to angrybirdsnest.com, an Angry Bird’s fan site, seeking the answer. There I learned that these supernova explosions were due to “magic spots.” It turns out that, if a bird hits a certain spot just right, it will trigger one of these supernova explosions. At first, people thought that these spots were glitches in the game’s software and that they would be wiped out in a future update. But no, they seem to be intentional. And they remain.

Here’s how they work:

• As far as I know, Magic Spots only exist in Seasons Greedings. And they only exist on levels where there is a pig wearing a red Santa hat. I am not sure that every level with a Santa pig also has a magic spot. But if the level doesn’t have a Santa pig, there is no magic spot.

Beyond this, there is no way to tell where, or if, a magic spot exists on a given level. That is, nothing about the magic spot location looks special in any way.

• Although I am not 100% sure of this, it appears that a magic spot explosion is possible only on the first shot of a level. After that, all plays out normally. Certainly, after the Santa pig has been destroyed, your chance is over. [Update: I have now confirmed that magic spot explosions can work after the first shot – if the Santa pig remains untouched after the initial shot.]

• Actually, the name “magic spot” may be a bit of a misnomer. The trigger for a supernova is apparently not so much hitting a precise spot as it is hitting a spot that causes the necessary effect to the Santa pig. Typically, you may need to get the pig to roll in a certain direction. Simply destroying the Santa pig will not have the desired effect. A corollary to this is that there may be more than one spot that causes the explosion.

All of this means it can be quite frustrating to reproduce a magic spot explosion. You can hit what seems to be the the correct location in the exact way needed — yet no supernova occurs. This is probably because your hit did not have the needed effect on the Santa pig. You may have to try the same shot over and over — dozens of times — just to get one supernova.

• The damage that results from a supernova will vary each time you hit the magic spot. Even if you get a successful shot off, you may want to try again. Your next success may yield an even higher score. The best spots are the ones that allow you to finish off a level with just the one shot. I can’t say this with certainty, but it seems that my supernova scores are higher than they would be if I had accomplished the same destruction with a conventional shot. It’s as if you get special bonus points for the supernova devastation.

Magic Spot Levels

Here are my four favorite levels with magic spots (there are others beyond these four):

1-18: Aim your bomb bird for the triangular gap near the center top. If you do it right, when the bomb explodes, you’ll wipe everything out in one shot. My best effort yielded a high score of 119,100.

1-21: Get your first shot to go through the snow, right under the area where the Santa pig resides. Do it just right and the resulting explosion will send sticks flying. I’ve never achieved complete destruction here. You’ll need one or two more birds to finish off the level. But you’ll wind up with a higher score than without the supernova.

1-24: Hit the blocks that form a ceiling above where the Santa pig resides. According to reader comments on angrybirdsnest.com, the goal is to get the Santa pig to roll 90 degrees to the right. I can’t confirm this. However, I can confirm that if you hit the ceiling in the right spot, you can wipe out the level with just the one shot. You won’t get total destruction with every blast. But if you do, you can get a score in excess of 100,000 (my best is 98,310).

1-7: This is it: the motherlode, the super-est supernova of all. To set off the explosion, send the bomb bird in a high arc so that it lands directly atop the final right-most column of bricks. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, even if you hit the spot, nothing will happen. But when it works, watch out. You can achieve a near total wipe-out leading to incredible scores. Initially, my high score for the level was 73,300, good enough for three stars. After a couple of magic spot explosions, I pushed my score to 117,510 — almost 45,000 points more than my prior three-star score!

Are Magic Spots Good or Evil?

One the one hand, magic spots add an element of fun and surprise to Angry Birds. When you hit one these spots, especially after an hour of trying, you’ll jump up and cheer. On the other hand, they add a further element of luck to the game — which I regard as a negative.

Why luck? Aside from the telltale Santa pig, there is no way to know if a magic spot potentially exists for a given level. Even with the Santa pig, you don’t know for sure that a magic spot is present — or where it may be. Further, no matter how skillful you are, it seems impossible to achieve the supernova explosion with any reliability — even if you know exactly where to aim. Yet, if you don’t master these shots, you have no chance of climbing to the top of the Leaderboard. The magic spots are bit like finding the golden eggs. But the eggs don’t affect your score.

On balance, I vote thumbs up for the spots. Once you discover them, they become yet another intriguing twist to this great game. As far as I know, magic spots exist only in Seasons Greedings. I am hopeful that we have not seen the last of them.

P.S. For those of you who are curious: My Angry Birds Seasons high score is 6,430,780 (currently I am 17 on the Game Center Leaderboard).

Posted in Apple Inc, Entertainment, iPhone, Technology | 2 Comments

Picturing an iPhone at an Exhibition

Recently, I attended the “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay” exhibit at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. Unless you plan on visiting Paris after these artworks are returned, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to see some truly fabulous paintings, including Van Gogh’s Starry Night. If you live in the Bay Area, don’t miss it.

But this column is not about my museum recommendations. Rather, it’s about iPhones.

As at many museums, the De Young offers an audio tour of its exhibits. You rent an audio-only playback device and headset. For the Post-Impressionist guided tour, it costs $7.

But wait? Wouldn’t it be great if the Museum offered an Exhibit Tour iPhone app? It could be a win-win. The museum would save the cost of purchasing and maintaining hundreds of audio playback devices and headsets. Attendees (at least those with iPhones) would be saved the hassle of having to carry around an additional piece of equipment. As a bonus, an iPhone app could be far superior to the audio-only guides that now exist. It could include supplementary graphics and video in addition to the audio. It would have an easier-to-navigate touchscreen interface.

Depending upon the museum’s policies, the app could serve as a permanent souvenir of your visit — or it could be set to expire after your visit is over.

For all this to work smoothly, two critical details would need to be worked out:

1. How would you get the app on your iPhone?

The simplest way would be for the Museum to submit the app to the App Store and, assuming it gets accepted, have it available for you to download. As one especially relevant example, you can already get a Tour app for the Orsay Museum.

But what if you arrive at the museum without the app pre-purchased? Assuming the Museum has decent 3G coverage (for iPhones and iPad 3Gs) or free Wi-Fi (for all iOS devices), you could download it on the spot.

Still, I believe the best solution would be if the Museum could directly and locally transfer the app to your iOS device. In theory, this could work by connecting your iPhone to a Mac server containing the app. Or it could be done wirelessly via a local Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection (perhaps similar to how Bump works, if the app is not too large).

2. How would you pay for the app?

If the app is available via the App Store, there’s no problem. You pay for it as you would with any other app.

If the app is directly transferred locally at the Museum, you could pay for it via cash or credit card, just as you would have done to rent the separate audio device.

As many of you have probably realized by now, there’s one big problem with the entire local transfer and payment scenario: It’s impossible to do. Why? Because Apple won’t permit it.

The only way to install apps on your iPhone is via the App Store. There is no sanctioned pathway for the museum to directly transfer an app locally. [OK. Technically, this is not entirely true. As one example, there are ways for developers to permit users to load beta versions of an app for testing. However, such methods are cumbersome and not designed for the type of large-scale quick transactions that museums would need.]

Which is all too bad. This is a huge missed opportunity. It’s yet another example of how Apple’s restrictive policies prevent using iOS devices in ways that would enhance its functionality.

Apple could create a special section of the iOS for locally-transferred apps. It could include a check to make sure that you are not illegally copying apps obtained from the App Store or otherwise copy-protected. And Apple would have to give up its 30% cut of the sale of such “local apps.” In return, amateur developers could use this to create apps to share among friends. Various institutions, from retail stores to museums, could use it to provide apps at the point-of-sale. But it will only happen if Apple loosens its grip on iOS access. I expect it will happen someday. But it won’t be this year. Or next.

Posted in Apple Inc, iPhone, Technology | 1 Comment