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7 Hollywood Ripoffs With Titles (and Posters, and Plots) You Won't Believe

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The correct term is mockbuster (or knockbuster): a micro-budgeted, straight-to-DVD, B-movie that piggy-backs on the massive publicity of a phenomenally bigger movie. The formula is simple: look at what blockbuster movies are planned for next year, then knock out something vaguely similar in a week and a half and slap on an almost identical—but just different enough to not get sued—title. Here are some of our favorites.

1. Snakes on a Train

Most notable star: A.J. Castro (Played “Casino Waiter” on an episode of Days of Our Lives)

How does it compare to the original? Well, clearly we won’t get Sam Jackson on an Amtrak professing how tired he is of these “monkey fighting” serpents on this “Monday to Friday”* commuter. So lower your expectations accordingly.

Besides that, what’s different? Pretty much everything. Here’s how the screenwriter described the plot: A woman has been put under a Mayan curse which causes snake eggs to hatch inside of her and eat their way out. In order to recover the lost pieces of herself, the snakes, she must take a train to Los Angeles where a powerful Mayan shaman can lift the curse, taking the snakes along with her in small jars. When she gets on the train, bandits accost her and the snakes escape, leaving the rest of the people on the train to deal with them.

So, you see…wait wha-???

In a perfect example of how marketing trumps artistic integrity at mockbuster factory The Asylum, the producer asked the special effects guy to change the ending of the film to match the artwork on the DVD box, which inexplicably features an aircraft carrier-sized snake consuming the eponymous train. So, near the end, we see the cursed woman leap off the train only to transform into a giant snake and gobble up the train. Fin. It’s a finale so perplexingly inscrutable as to make David Lynch cry.

* Those are the actually dubbed lines used for Samuel L. Jackson’s famous quote in the safe-for-basic-cable version of Snakes on a Plane.

2. AVH: Alien Vs. Hunter

Most notable star: William Katt (Greatest American Hero)

How does it compare to the original? If you think AVH just shamelessly copies Alien Vs. Predator, you’re sadly mistaken. There is no Predator in AVH (because that’s a licensed property), but rather an interstellar “hunter.” Big difference. Okay, so the poster looks like some graphic designer simply took the Alien Vs. Predator poster and slapped “hunter” over Predator and called it a day, which is pretty much the case. But then you see the trailer:

See, the Aliens, who on the poster so closely resemble the Aliens in the Hollywood franchise, are nowhere to be found. Instead we get giant spiders. Also, can the Alien Vs. Predator films boast William Katt’s glorious moustache? No, no they can’t.

3. The DaVinci Treasure

Most notable stars: C. Thomas Howell, Lance Henrikson

How does it compare to the original? To say The DaVinci Treasure blatantly rips off The DaVinci Code is like saying last night’s WWE match might have been rigged. C. Thomas Howell is a forensic anthropologist, which to the Asylum’s credit, sounds less made up than Tom Hanks’ “symbologist.” Howell decodes clues found in Leonardo DaVinci’s work that might just lead to “the world’s greatest treasure.” Of course, mysterious agents encounter Howell, seeking to stop the treasure seeker dead in his tracks (literally). We even get all the requisite European locals, car chases, gun play, inexplicable explosions and just that right amount of National Treasure tossed in.

4. Transmorphers: Fall of Man

Most notable star: Bruce Boxleitner (Scarecrow and Mrs. King. And, okay, Tron.), Shane Van Dyke (grand nephew to Jerry Van Dyke and an Asylum veteran)

How does it compare to the original? As a rip off of the Transformers sequel, The Asylum zig when you think they’ll zag and make their mockbuster follow-up a prequel. Brilliant! Nonetheless, the main distinction between the Asylum version and the Hollywood version is Michael Bay’s robots transform, whereas The Asylum’s robots “transmorph.” Reminds me of the Transformers/Go-Bots toy wars of the 1980s, and we all remember how that turned out: total global nuclear annihilation.

Fortunately, The Asylum is savvy enough not to rip off Transformers wholesale. Instead, the plot of Transmorphers: FOM rips off the Terminator franchise entirely, centering on a man vs. machine apocalyptic showdown. It should be noted The Asylum also rips off Terminator in another, more legitimate knock-off, The Terminators. So it’s like a rip-off within a rip-off within a rip off. Right now some kid is writing his film school dissertation solely on that last sentence.

Interesting Note: For an Asylum film, Transmorphers: FOM’s SFX are impressively passable. Considering the film cost only $300,000 to make, it would only require a 3 million dollar return to make the movie 1,000% profitable. Michael Bay’s flick needed to make 2 billion dollars to match that kind of return on investment.
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For all its versatility, one thing The Asylum doesn’t have in its bag of tricks is CG family entertainment. What’s one to do when you want to sit down with the kids to a Pixar or DreamWorks flick but without all that irritating quality and more Portuguese?

Thank goodness there’s Video Brinquedo, the Brazilian animation studio behind such great Portuguese-language family fare as That One Movie that Looks Vaguely like Kung Fu Panda. You may know Video Brinquedo from such hits as:

5. What’s Up: Balloon to the Rescue

How does it compare to the original? What’s Up is about an old man who travels around in a house held aloft by a balloon. Stop right there. Before you say, “Yeah, sounds exactly like Up,” just wait. This old man, Dr. Crumb, is the leader of a monster busting crew that travels the world…well, “monster busting crew” kind of explains itself. Also, Dr. Crumb possesses an incredibly powerful hypno-rock that could hypnotize the entire population of the earth just with the password “lavender,” something he never forgets to mention in TV interviews. So are Dr. Crumb and his team a group of super villains? Nope, they just have a world-enslaving power object and don’t hesitate to let anyone know it.

So why do we need a balloon house again?

What happens next involves a tea-hating, drunk Frenchman, travels across the globe and Dr. Crumb’s assistant, Guto, having an adverse reaction to hypnotization and pooping his pants. Really, the entire film can be summed up in this bit of dialog:

Guto: I don't want that Chinese guy in there with my monsters. He didn't even say anything when i showed him the cookie.
Dr. Crumb: Did you try showing him a fortune cookie? That would work.

6. Ratatoing

How does it compare to the original? Hey, Pixar’s movie about a culinary rat was called Ratatouille, this one is called Ratatoing. How much originality do you want? The subtlety of Vídeo Brinquedo make of The Asylum’s rip-offs look like The Thomas Crown Affair.

Or, as one critic said, "if you ate a copy of the worst cartoon you could think of, you'd still probably crap something better than Ratatoing." Which brings the question: what sadistic publication makes their reviewers watch this?

7. The Little Panda Fighter

How does it compare to the original? Take Kung Fu Panda, render it in MS Paint, then take the MS Paint version and render it on an Etch-a-Sketch. We’re not done yet. Put that Etch-a-Sketch version back into MS Paint and color it using the paint bucket tool and…jeez, that still looks way too good. Any way we can do this all on a Commodore 64?

The Little Panda Fighter is about a world inhabited by bears that all look like someone punched a jar of Play-Doh in the face. One particularly perverse panda spends an unsettling amount of time in his dank basement, but instead of begging others to put the lotion on the skin, this panda dreams of becoming a ballerina. Unfortunately, he is forced to become a kick boxer (typical panda struggle). Will he find a way to bring these two worlds together? The movie probably cares less than you do. Also, the panda falls down a lot. Because he’s fat. Comedy!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Stephen Missal
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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