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6 Movies That Were Almost Other Movies

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With the number of remakes, reboots, and re-imagined movies coming out of Hollywood lately, the industry seems intent on taking everything old and making it new again. And while that's hardly just a recent trend, you might be surprised at some of the films from the last few decades that started out as very different projects, only to have their scripts, characters, and other elements find new life on their way through the development cycle.

From Beverly Hills Cop to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the list of projects that began as something else entirely includes more than a few classic films, as well as some cult classics with notable origins.

1. Die Hard

We have Arnold Schwarzenegger to thank for Bruce Willis' debut as tough NYPD cop John McClane: the former Moonlighting star was only cast in the role after the Governator turned it down. The film—now considered one of the greatest action movies of all time—was originally intended to be a sequel to Schwarzenegger's testosterone-fueled Commando, and a script was commissioned based on Roderick Thorp's 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, about an NYPD detective fighting German terrorists who take over a skyscraper. However, the disappointing box-office performance of Schwarzenegger's first attempt at a sequel, Conan the Destroyer, led him to drop out of Commando 2. The script was then repurposed into a standalone action film, and the rest is Hollywood history.

2. Cyborg

This violent, post-apocalyptic 1989 film starring Jean-Claude Van Damme as a mercenary with the musical moniker “Gibson Rickenbacker” began its production cycle as a sequel to 1987's live-action He-Man adventure Masters of the Universe. After studio Cannon Films was forced to cancel its deal with toy company Mattel for the He-Man license (as well as a deal with Marvel for a live-action Spider-Man movie), it was left with more than $2 million in costumes and sets for the project. In an effort to recoup its expenses, the studio repurposed the props and sets for a new film, and cast up-and-coming actor Van Damme as the lead. This is the reason that the movie is still occasionally labeled Masters of the Universe 2: Cyborg in television listings.

3. Beverly Hills Cop

In its original incarnation, the movie that would become Beverly Hills Cop was a far more serious, action-heavy film set to star Sylvester Stallone as a Pittsburgh detective transplanted to the West Coast. After Stallone's suggested script changes met with resistance from the studio, the Rocky star was replaced by Eddie Murphy, who injected the film with much of its trademark humor due to some heavily ad-libbed comedy. Stallone later used many of the elements he had suggested for Beverly Hills Cop in his 1986 movie Cobra.

4. Die Hard With A Vengeance

If the relationship between John McClane (Bruce Willis) and Zeus Carver (Sam Jackson) feels a little familiar, that's because the third film in the Die Hard franchise began as the fourth film in the Lethal Weapon franchise, which famously stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as odd-couple cops who are always too crazy or too old, respectively, to be dealing with these types of adventures. The project was initially titled Simon Says before getting a rewrite and being repurposed into the first example of what was to become a buddy-cop theme in subsequent Die Hard films.

5. Solace

This upcoming film starring Anthony Hopkins began life as a standalone script that was snatched up by New Line Cinema with an eye toward making it the sequel to David Fincher's 1995 thriller Se7en. Penned by Ocean's Eleven screenwriter Ted Griffin, the Solace script follows a doctor with psychic powers who becomes involved with the investigation of a serial killer. New Line Cinema hoped to bring back Morgan Freeman as Detective William Somerset in the lead role, and call the film Ei8ht. After meeting resistance from Fincher, the project was abandoned, only to find new life years later as a standalone film—just as it was originally intended. Now back to its first title, Solace, the movie is scheduled to hit theaters in 2014.

6. Who Framed Roger Rabbit

One of the most surprising examples of one script becoming the primary source material for another, 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit featured an underlying narrative borrowed from the storyline for Cloverleaf, the planned third installment of Jack Nicholson's Chinatown trilogy. Nicholson's dark, crime-noir franchise was initially conceived as a three-part story that followed hardboiled detective J.J. Gittes (Nicholson) as he investigates various mysteries in and around Los Angeles during the early 20th century. The storyline for the final chapter, Cloverleaf, would find Gittes caught up in a plot to raze a portion of the city and replace the trolley-car system with a freeway—a storyline that also happens to be the central narrative of Roger Rabbit. Screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman have made no secret of the connection between their script for Roger Rabbit and the Chinatown trilogy, and named the evil company in their film “Cloverleaf Industries” as a nod to the series. Unlike Roger Rabbit, however, Cloverleaf never made it to the screen, as plans for the film were scrapped after the poor performance of the second film in the series, The Two Jakes. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]