Audiobook Review: The Millionaires By Brad Meltzer & Plum Spooky By Janet Evanovich

My wife and I have been listening to the unabridged audiobook version of Brad Meltzer’s 2002 novel The Millionaires. I read the book back around 2002 after hearing about or actually reading his comic book work. As it turned out, I remembered almost nothing about the story except for a few random bits, so when I started loading up my gigantic iPod with my iTunes back-up files and remembered that I had downloaded a free copy of the audiobook version at some point, I was excited to listen to it. I’ve never listened to a book that I’ve read before, so that was an interesting experience, especially as I kept challenging my brain to remember exactly what happening (and actually questioning whether I read this book or not in the first place).

The key, much like an important part of the book, rests in Disney World. There are some thrilling scenes that take place at the happiest place on earth that did stick in my mind and also helped me convince my wife to give the book a listen. I remember reading or hearing Metlzer say at one point that doing behind the scenes research at Disney was actually more difficult than doing research at the White House. I believe it.

Anyway, the story itself revolves around a pair of brothers who wind up stealing a lot more money than they intended to. What was supposed to be a quick, small grab of money no one would notice turned into an uncovering of a much larger, more nefarious plans that put the brothers on the run. Like the other two Meltzer books I’ve read–Zero Game and Book Of Lies–he keeps the chapters short and the reader on the run along with the characters, making sure not to reveal too much or too little. The reading by Scott Brick–who also does the Nelson DeMille books, which I’ve only reviewed one of, but have actually listened to many more–keeps the story moving along perfectly and matches the tension to a tee. Sure, some of the accents are off, but what are you gonna do?

While The Millionaires was a taught thriller filled with interesting characters I actually cared about and wanted to see do well, Janet Evanovich’s Plum Spooky (2009) was filled with head-scratching events, confusing characters and monkeys. To be fair, neither my wife nor I have read or listened to any of the Stephanie Plum books, but she’s a real world bounty hunter, right? So, why does the end of this book feel/sound like a cut rate James Bond film mixed with superheroes? The bad guys want to control weather! The good guy literally disappears at the end! Another man farts fire! Huh? I swear, I didn’t make any of that up.

The plot revolves around Plum going after a a science guy who skipped out on a bond after smashing his boss in the face and stealing a piece of equipment. Actually, before any of that actually, someone drops off a monkey for her to watch, so he becomes her de facto partner in addition to all her other partners. While going about her job, she happens to smell a dude she knows named Diesel who later shows up at her apartment. He’s what he calls an Unmentionable which means he’s got some kind of supernatural powers or some such. He’s helping Stephanie because his cousin Wolf is also an Unmentionable who is working with the guy she’s after. Confused? If it sounds like a comic, it sure does. Not only with the super-type folk, but also because most people in the book go by colorful nicknames: Wolf, Diesel, Ranger, Flash, Sasquatch, the Easter Bunny, etc. Wolf and the scientist–who also wants to be a rapist, by the way–are working on something that will SPOILER control the weather. To do so, they’ve kidnapped a woman who has her own monkey collection. There’s more, but I won’t get into it.

What threw me with this book is that I felt like I could never get a grip on what kind of reality we’re dealing with. I assumed that it was just the real world, especially after my wife explained that this is the character that Katherine Heigl just played in One For The Money. But then you get the Unmentionables (terrible name, by the way) and her partner Lula constantly talking about the Jersey Devil and even a man who literally farts fire and I just don’t know what I’m supposed to know about this world. Plus, the stakes just felt too high for what I was being shown. As a bad guy, Wolf might have been dangerous, but he came off as super goofy and the science guy was just trying to touch a boob (or worse).

Part of the problem stems from Lorelei King’s reading of the book. Her voice for the science guy is as stereotypical for a nerd as you can get (think the annoying kid from Polar Express and you’re there). I also thought her voice for Lula was grating at the very best, though I’m not sure if that’s a character I could ever get behind as written. In fact, most of the voices were so stereotypical and obvious that they were groan-worthy. At the same time, though, she can only work with what she’s given by the author. There were some genuinely funny moments in there, but I got the overall feeling that Evanovich was trying way too hard to make every single character seem cool and failed. As my wife put it, she missed more than she hit. This was definitely the case at the end when we actually lost track of what was happening and then, bang, it was over. The ending felt anticlimactic, especially given the potential scale for trouble the bad guys were working towards. On the other hand, the abridged version was short and gave us exactly the amount of story we needed to get home from Massachusetts today, so I can’t complain too much.

I know Evanovich spun Diesel and Wolf out into their own Wicked series of books. Did they get even more into the superhero/supernatural stuff? I’d honestly be curious to check them out, especially if she really dove into that realm and had fun with it.

Quick Movie Review: Captain America The First Avengers (2011)

I’ve got to say, I’m digging what Marvel Entertainment is doing with their Marvel movies. Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger might not be my favorite movies or even on the same level with each other (Thor and Hulk haven’t aged well in my mind) but, as a comic geek, I do appreciate all the little bits and pieces they throw in for us to slobber over. Plus, the connections between the films leading up to The Avengers have just been fun. I have no idea if normal people care about this stuff at all, but I get giddy.

Cap is packed with those kinds of things, even if they don’t match up with the comics. Guys, Arnim freaking Zola was in this movie! The original Human Torch (or at least his costume) were on display! Howling Commandos! Union Jack! I don’t even care that Bucky Barnes knew Steve ahead of time and all that. His costume looked kind of like Winter Soldier’s! Ahhh! I don’t remember geeking out this much at a comic movie in a long time, so that was fun.

It also helped that it was a fun adventure story that even my inlaws liked (we watched it over the weekend). Someone in the room mentioned that it was like Indiana Jones and I think that’s a very apt comparison. This movie sets up an evil bad guy, a great good guy, gives him a solid, important missions and pits the two against each other. I even like how they changed Red Skull’s origin to put him more on par with Cap physically. I didn’t quite understand what the deal with the Cosmic Cube was this time around (the baby was making noise, so I might have missed some exposition) but I did like how it was connected to the World Tree and thus the alien gods seen in Thor.

One other quick thing, I was so, so, SO glad to see a comic book period flick. I know X-Men: First Class did the same thing last year too, but I haven’t seen that one yet. When I was at Wizard there was talk of a Fantastic Four movie being done as a period piece, set in the 60s. I don’t know if it was an actual rumor from somewhere or something we just got to talking about, but the idea struck me as kind of revelatory at the time. A swinging 60s FF would have been great! I’m glad that this idea whether something we just made up or not eventually became a reality. I know it would never happen, but I’d love to see a 30s-set Superman flick done with modern special effects tech! It works for Cap because he came back from WWII to be in the present day and the X-Men because they’re a team that have been around for a while. Speaking of which, all this Cap stuff got me even more jazzed for The Avengers! Is it out yet?

80s Space Odyssey: Battle Beyond The Stars (1980)

I’ve realized in the past few years that I can add “well intentioned Star Wars-esque space opera with practical effects” to the list of sub-genres that I can really get behind. Buck Rogers, Black Hole, Barbarella, Star Crash and a few other Roger Corman movies I’ve seen have all really impressed me. And, in truth, when it comes to Corman’s most expensive-to-date film Battle Beyond The Stars, it’s way more of a Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven lift than a Star Wars one, though they do seem set on making Richard Thomas of Waltons fame look as much like Luke Skywalker as possible. Our hero Shad is worried about the fate of his home planet, so he goes out into the galaxy to bring back a sextet of people including Robert Vaughn, George Peppard (Hannibal from A-Team) and Sybil Danning to square off against none other than John Saxon who played the cop in Nightmare on Elm Street as well as one of the white dudes in Enter the Dragon.

It should also be noted that, while the plot borrows from Akira Kurosawa, it also pays homage by naming Shad’s home planet Akir where the people are known as the Akira. There’s also some fun had with the people he gathers. One’s a bodacious Wonder Woman-esque warrior, a lizard like alien, a cowboy from Earth, a group of mind-melded three-eyed aliens, Robert Vaughn as well Robert Vaughn and more. Shad also has a sassy talking spaceship that’s pretty fun.

All in all, I thought that Battle Beyond The Stars was a nice effort. Even the spaceships look pretty great, though the main one looks like a combination of Hammerhead from Star Wars and the female reproductive system. So, if you’re looking for a practically done, somewhat campy, but still enthusiastic sci-fi flick from the early 80s, you can do a lot worse than checking out Battle. Plus, it’s on NetBox, so you don’t have to wait for a rental!

Just Finished The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret Series 1

I haven’t done any reviews here on UnitedMonkee, but I think Arrested Development is one of the greatest pieces of anything ever. As such, I try to give everything and anything that the people involved in that show make a shot. Sometimes that’s great like Parenthood and sometimes it’s not so great like Will Arnett’s short-lived Running Wilde. It also introduced me to the genius of David Cross who I had seen here and there before but between AD and my much more stand-up savvy friends, I have developed a huge respect for Cross that has gone back to Mr. Show which I’m slowly making my way through on DVD.

Anyway, I had heard about IFC’s The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret here and there and was excited when it popped up on the NetBox (that’s Netflix Instant on the Xbox, if you’re a newbie). Here’s the deal with the show, David Cross plays Todd Margaret a kind of useless wimp who works for a big company. His boss Will Arnett sends him to England to figure out how to sell Thunder Muscle, an energy drink. He shows up at a huge office that’s empty except for one young man named Dave who likes messing with the slightly pompous Todd. He also happens upon a restaurant run by the lovely Sharon Horgan who he falls for and tries to woo with less success each time. The title of the show, while long and a bit unwieldy, is completely spot on because all the trouble that Cross gets into falls solely on his own shoulders and his inability to tell the truth when backed into a corner.

There’s a really clever device at the beginning of each episode where a beat-up looking Todd sits in an English court with a judge reading off a laundry list of accusations–most of which spawn from the upcoming episode–and a group of lawyers or judges just yelling at him. We then cut back to whatever day we’re dealing with out of 12. It’s a great bit of business because it lets the viewer know that all these wacky events are actually leading up to something relatively big and serious.

If I had to compare Increasingly to any shows, I’d say it’s kind of a mix of the awkwardness of the UK Office or Extras and Louis CK’s Louie with a good dose of fish-out-of-water/arrogant-American-ness mixed in. I don’t compare it to Louie‘s honesty or autobiographic nature, but to the feeling I get that Cross is basically running this show exactly how he wants to.

At the end of the day it’s a fun show steeped in awkwardness that had me laughing and cringing at the same time. Those are jokes that can be hilarious or awful, but Cross and company do a good job of tempering them. I also appreciate that, while the show is a comedy first and foremost, there are also a good deal of mysteries that make me want to see the second series and not just the big one of what happens to Todd. What’s the deal with Dave? He’s clearly more than he seems to be. Also, how did Arnett get swindled? What’s the deal with all that? I’m jazzed to see how the series wraps up and hope to see the last six episodes on NetBox.

The Challenge Battle Of The Exes Episode 5 “Crazy In Love”

I realized something while watching tonight’s episode of The Challenge: Battle Of The Exes: there are a lot of good teams left. If I had to pick a weak link it would be down to Paula and Dunbar and Aneesa and Rachel. I think they might do well in a few challenges here and there, but they should be pretty easy to either knock off or keep around for the finale so you can win over them. Aside from them, though, you’ve got Abe and Cara Maria, CT and Diem, Mark and Robin, Johnny and Camila and Ty and Emily who are all viable contenders in this thing. Any of them could make it and any of them would be smart people to send into the Dome if the Power Couple actually gets smart. Do they get smart this episode? You’ll just have to read on and see. Continue reading The Challenge Battle Of The Exes Episode 5 “Crazy In Love”

Great Apes: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011)

Planet Of The Apes is a franchise that I absolutely love, but haven’t talked about much here on the blog. I don’t think there’s any question that the original film is a classic worth celebrating, but what really hooked me about the franchise was the strange and wonderful continuity that flows through the first five films. You’ve got astronauts traveling forward in time, more coming after them, a nuclear bomb going off, apes traveling back to the original time period and having a baby who eventually leads the ape uprising. It might be a bit confusing to some, but I started learning about it at the height of my interest in comics which was heavily based on the history within the stories I was learning about.

So, when I heard that a new Apes film was being worked on that wasn’t really in the continuity, I wasn’t super interested. But, as time went on, the cast formed and I heard lots of liking the film, I figured I’d give it a shot. There’s a time when this movie’s lack of continuity with the others would have really bothered me, but I think I’m past that part of my fandom. Now, I can easily appreciate a story spinning off of another story I like especially if it’s as well done as Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.

The movie follows James Franco, a scientist working on an Alzheimer’s cure that’s being tested on apes. It turns out the drug is also making them smarter, but when one of them flips out and starts attacking people, they’re all put down. One of the babies, Caesar, gets spared, however, and Franco decides to raise him in his house. He also tests the drug on his dad (John Lithgow). Everything goes well for a while until Caesar flips out (apes do that, it’s why they make bad pets) and gets sent to an ape house run by Brian Cox and Tom Felton (Malfoy from the Potter films, that dude always plays someone awful). While there, Caesar learns some of the harder truths about the world and winds up first dosing his fellow apes and then leading a revolution to free them as well as apes in the zoos and labs.

It’s a great story, but most importantly it was handled really well. Director Rupert Wyatt really allowed for the special effects to do their work, and they did a lot of good work in this film, though I’ll get more into that in a bit. Whole scenes work out between Caesar and the other animals where not a word is said. There’s a clever use of sign language between him (Franco taught it to him) and an orangutan who used to be in a circus, but even that isn’t overly used. It might sound strange, but the digital apes really get a chance to show what they can do and they do very intense, emotional work.

On the subject of the effects, I kept thinking about one of Penn Jillette’s Penn Point podcasts from last year where he quickly spotlighted this movie, saying that he liked how the digital apes actually looked a little cartoony and unreal. I didn’t really get what he meant until I saw the movie, but I think he’s right on with his assessment. The apes are clearly digital, but not in a bad or sloppy way. They’re very well done and could have probably been made more realistic, but I think it’s good for them to be a bit cartoony because it lets your brain relax on that subject for a bit. You’re not constantly trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not (even if that’s an unconscious struggle), which allows you to enjoy the film more and get further into its reality.

Finally, I dug how the film ended. The apes get what they want, but there’s obviously a lot more story to be told both because humans aren’t going to just give up any of their territory like that AND because of the cool credit presentation of the spread of the human disease caused by unneeded exposure to the drug Franco helped create. For a film I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to see, being excited about a potential sequel is a pretty big deal. Can’t wait to see where they go with this franchise next!

Casting Internets

For CBR I wrote pieces about Jonathan Hickman’s The Manhattan Projects and Robert Kirkman’s upcoming projects.

I also did three pieces about the AMC show Comic Book Men, one a roundtable with Kevin Smith, one about the general Q&A and an interview with star Ming Chen.

In toy news, I helped set up the announcement of the Walking Dead MiniMate line from Diamond Select Toys at CBR and then covered Toy Fair! Here’s my reports on Mattel, Diamond Select Toys, DC Direct, NECA and Hasbro’s Marvel and G.I. Joe lines.

I also did a pair of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance posts for Marvel.com, the first was the coolest moments from Jason Aaron’s run on the comic and the second was the coolest moments from the trailers. Stoked for that flick even if it didn’t do very well last weekend. My pal Rickey Purdin joined the Sketch Attack sketch blog. Check it out!

Another friend, Matt Powell, posted a new bit of art on his Saturday Morning Is…Awesome blog. This one’s about a Khary Randolph Usagi sketch he scored.

I love buying digital records, but I don’t like that you can’t try to sell off the files if you’re not into them anymore. I know it’s complicated and people would abuse such a thing, but I want it. I dug this piece THR did on it.

I haven’t read this CBR piece on the Simpsons Arcade Game finally make its way to home systems just yet, but I’m excited to. That game was always a favorite. I really dug Phil Noto‘s rendition of Lady Mary from Downton Abbey. I also dug Chris Bishop‘s Downton Abbey infographic for PBS.

Jay-Z’s Carnegie Hall show sounds like it was pretty rad. (via Rolling Stone)

In other music news from Rolling Stone, Green Day is working on a new album, this is good news. Dan Hipp mashed up Planet of the Apes and Mario, I love it. I wish it wasn’t $80 so I could buy it.

I would be very happy if John Goodman joined Roseanne’s new sitcom Downwardly Mobile. (via Deadline)Star Trek and Doctor Who seem like the perfect things to cross over. I think I’ll give this trade a look when it comes out. (via CBR)