Friday, December 30, 2011

Uncle Zack picks the best movies of 2011

The critics have chosen the so-called best movies of 2011 and as usual it is an abysmal assortment of films you’ve never seen or even heard about. And why would you? They went nowhere.
What I found interesting is that, for the most part, they chose the same films. Here’s a list of their most popular choices.
The Artist
The Descendants
Meek’s Cut-off
Le Havre
The Tree of Life.
The only one I’ve seen is Hugo. Now here’s the thing. This movie received glowing reviews and praise as one of Scorsese’s best.
It was a snore.
The first 40 minutes simply features a boy in a train depot in 1930’s France. That’s it. 40 minute of a boy wandering a train station. Then we are subjected to the usual plot contrivances. The boy’s an orphan (oh, boo-hoo) the war injured cop is too shy to talk to the pretty girl and the crusty old man turns out to have a heart of gold. Fortunately, none of you have ever seen a movie with those elements.
This bomb was in and out of theaters faster than the latest Harold and Kumar disaster. Now here’s my point. How do the people who review movies get their jobs? Since all the movies they chose tanked, shouldn’t they be fired?
A new movie comes out, you think it looks interesting and go to the reviews to see what the critics say, then you base your decision on what they wrote. Is it funny? Is it action packed? Is it engaging? Is it a chick flick? Will the kids like it?
These are the questions the critics no longer consider or address. Over the last few years movie critics have become social activists, and push movies with themes that appeal to their sense of how society should be.
That’s not their job. Their job is to watch movies and provide you with clear information on what it contains so you can decide whether you would like to see it.        
  But to be fair there really wasn’t much to choose from this year, mostly sequels of one sort or another, so the studios should share some of the blame. Still there were some originals that were worth seeing, for example:
Rango.  Fun, clever, witty and edgy enough to hold your attention.
Cowboys and Aliens. Got panned by the critics but it brought something new to an old genre. Action-packed, fast-paced and well acted.
Source Code.  A truly intriguing science fiction film with enough twists and turns to keep you riveted.
Battle L.A.  This is a guy flick, period. So much action and adrenaline that you leave the movie feeling like you had been fighting alongside them.
Before I announce my personal favorite of the year let me explain how I critique a movie. I strongly dislike movies that feature some poor abused group during some horrible time in their country’s history who at the end triumph over all odds. Those movies have been done to death and I’m just plain sick of them.  For example I enjoyed The King’s Speech and Forrest Gump but did not like Slumdog Millionaire or The Help. I love anything that’s new, different and brings something to the table that I haven’t experienced before. And so, my favorite movie for 2011 is…

 Sucker Punch. I will be the first to say this movie isn’t for everybody and the first 20 minutes drag but only because pulling off something this different requires a lot of set up, but once you get into it, you’ll be amazed. The visuals and the music are simply amazing. Plus it features a tragic murder, an insane asylum/nightclub, an impending lobotomy, a carefully planned escape attempt, a murderous hospital administrator and steam-powered Nazis, yeah, that right, stream-powered Nazis. If you enjoy movies well grounded in fact and realism, this isn’t for you BUT, if you have a taste for something you’re going to remember and talk about long after the other movies you’ve seen are long forgotten this is the pick of the litter.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Dead Machine

Chapter One

“Virgil? Good heavens, Virgil, is that you? Is that really you!?”         
Virgil’s eyes immediately widened and his heart leaped at the sound of her voice. His hand trembled on the dials as he fine-tuned the transmission.
When the hissing lessened he replied with unrestrained excitement, “Yes, yes it is me! It’s Virgil!”
There was a moment’s hesitation, then she asked, “How…how is this possible?”
He stared at the speaker, imagining her face, longing to see it again. He paid no attention to the cold or to the steamy vapor escaping his mouth as he breathed. Nor the drafts that bit into his fingers and snaked up his pant leg. He even ignored the acrid smell permeating every inch of the barn.
Nothing mattered, nothing but this moment, this incredibly special moment.
 Shaking with excitement, Virgil leaned into the microphone. “Do you remember, just before you were taken away, me telling you that no matter what, I would find you, and that we’d be together again?”
Through the crackling static came a reply. “Yes, but that… many years ago. And in th… situations people say things, knowing that… comforting things… lessen the hardship, to lessen…pain. I never thought that …”
“That I’d actually find you?”
The static grew louder and panic gripped Virgil. He jumped out of his seat and scanned the computer screens, recalibrating and synchronizing the feed.
“…have found me. Oh, Virgil, somehow you‘ve done the impossible!”
“Nothing is impossible!” Virgil shot back. “They all scoffed. They ridiculed and dismissed my work as a delusion, as fantasy. My grants dried up, my investors backed out; even the military gave up. But I never gave up! I made you a solemn promise and today, that promise has been kept.”
“Virgil, I don’t know what to say, I…”
Virgil interrupted as he scanned the computer screens. “What are your surroundings? Describe them for me. Can you see the stars?”
The static increased. The reply broke up. All four computer screens flashed Recalibrating…
“…The horizon in the morning…when I look out…the lights are always on… when we gather as a group…”
The hissing overwhelmed the rest of the sentence.
Virgil’s hands flew over the controls.
 “Mostly, we have a…”
Some background noise seeped into the transmission, then a stranger’s voice. “Virgil…? Lillian, did I just hear Virgil? Where…it coming from?”
“Bert, this is…private conversation and…”
The man ignored her. “Virgil? Is that you? Where are you? It’s me, Bert Langley. Remember me? I…science teacher…down…block? You used…newspaper to my…when you…kid. And I… tip you a whole…”
“Get out…here, you bastard,” Lillian bellowed. “Virgil doesn’t…about you! He wants…talk to me!”
Virgil heard a grunt, a huff and a shuffling of feet.
“Okay, he’s gone, and yes, we... several times a week… socialize and talk about ….back home.”
Virgil felt a lump in his throat. “You still miss us? Even after all this time?”
“Of course, Virgie! It’s knowing that our… care for us is…keeps us together. You are… thoughts each and every day.”
Tears spilled down Virgil’s cheek. “You are in mine each and every day too and…”
Virgil stopped when he heard Bert Langley’s voice again. It grew louder as he moved back into the transmission field. “Over there, see? I told you! Lillian is…with the outside. What? No! She’s not sending signals, she’s receiving them! See for… apparently…is possible…”
Lillian’s voice broke through in sharp hushed tones. “They’re coming Virgil! Disconnect! I don’t want them to know what you’ve accomplished. Get…to me in…few days!”
“Who’s coming? What are you talk…”
“Disconnect! Disconnect!” she shouted.
Virgil did.
He bowed his head and his hands fell into his lap as the level indicators on the array of computer screens slowly dropped, then flatlined.
 A few moments later, when the shock started wearing off, he said in a shaky voice, “I did it! After eleven years of ridicule from those jealous miscreants, I did it! We actually spoke.”
He wrapped his arms around himself, breathed deeply, then shot his fist into the air. “And this,” he said, bursting with confidence, “is just the beginning!”
Virgil rose from his chair at the control panel, walked over to his desk, reached down and picked up the framed photo that had accompanied him everywhere he went. He gazed at the picture, smiled, kissed it and placed it back on his desk.
The photo was of his mother, Lillian.
A woman dead for the past eleven years.

Want to read more?



Friday, December 23, 2011

Life Lessons from Uncle Zack

It ain’t bragging if you can do it- Mohammed Ali

          I can do a number of things most people can’t.  This is only an observation and nothing I feel arrogant or smug about.  I was born with a bunch of talents. That’s it. I did nothing to earn them.  I didn’t undergo the twelve trials of Hercules, endure the Perils of Pauline or defeat lord Voldemort. Basically, they were dropped into my lap.

         What I learned next was that these abilities came with a price. And it was in the paying for these talents that I got to know God. Now hold on!  Before you go charging off, fearing that I am about to descend into religious nutitude, please note that I am using the word ‘know’ as in you  ‘know’ how you’re old man gets when he has a couple of beers in him. Or you ‘know’ how your mother reacts when she hears grandma’s coming for a visit.

         Now here’s the deal. I believe that in the morning, God has HIS coffee, reads the paper, check HIS e-mail, then goes down into the gym, slaps on the gloves, gets into the ring and proceeds to beat the living shit out of me!

        To say I’m not fond of this routine would be an incredible understatement but, I have learned a couple of thing you might find useful.
        Number 1. Should you ever encounter someone God is presently beating the living shit out of, WHATEVER you do, DON’T assume it’s a pile-on and throw some punches at the poor bastard. Why? because if you do, God will smile, turn and start beating the shit out of you.

         How do I know this? Well, gather round kids and I’ll tell you a little story.
         When I was 12 or so, there was a bully up the block known only as ‘Red’ because he had dark red hair. Now this guy was older, taller, heavier and seemed to delight in making my life a living hell. No matter how much I tried to avoid this bastard, he always found me and I’d wind up with a bloody nose or fat lip.

        Well I wasn’t a scrawny twelve-year-old forever and having gone through puberty, and having taken a job after school lugging machinery around, I was suddenly in top shape and hoping to run into ‘Red’ because we had a score to settle.

The trouble was, the guy was nowhere to be found. I figured he moved and was making someone else’s life miserable.
And so it goes.
A couple of years pass. I’m coming home late one night and this guy comes up to me. I smelled him before I saw him, a real gutter bum. His hair was matted, as was his scraggly beard, he had no teeth and probably hadn’t had a bath in months. He shuffles up with his hand stuck out and says, “Hey brother, can I hold a quarter?”
Back in the late seventies you’d run into these guys a couple of times a day and I’d usually reply, “It ain’t heavy, I can hold it myself” and breeze by.
Only this time I slowed, there was something telling me to stop, telling me this time was different. He had followed me a few feet and when I turned and saw him under the light of the streetlamp, I knew exactly who he was. I hadn’t realized it at first because so much time had passed and even though he’d lost weight, was obviously on heroin, and now had long hair and a beard…
It was Red! There was no mistake in my mind.
“I’ve been having hard times,” he rasps, with his hand still extended.
I eye him and my anger almost overwhelms me. My hands close into fists.
Pally, they’re about to get a lot worse. A whole lot worse!
Just a quarter…”
Now let me back-up, just a little bit.
Remember me telling you that stepping into the ring while God is beating the shit out of someone is about the biggest mistake a person can make?  You’re probably wondering how I know this. Well, when you get a beating on a regular basis, you pay close attention to what’s going on around you, and what I noticed was whenever my life was spiraling downward and some vindictive bastard would try to add to the misery, shortly afterward, my fortunes would improve and his would life become a horror show.
Literally, a horror show.
And looking at Red I suddenly realized what was happening. I was being permitted to see what became of the miserable prick who plagued my youth.  I also realized that this wreck of a human being had endured a far worse beating than I ever could have inflicted and finally, it was crystal clear the next move was mine.

You’re damn right I gave him the quarter and got out of there as quick as possible.
I never saw him again.
True story.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Why We're Different

          There are three types of books the public loves and those books are about the police, lawyers and doctors.  Look at what’s on TV, what’s playing at the movies. Apparently the viewing populace can’t get enough. 
And some are admittedly very good.
          Every so often something different comes out and it is that very difference that makes it popular.
          So when my fellow authors and I formed Ari Publishing we decided that was the direction we wanted to go.
          For example: If you like Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, then you will very likely enjoy Noon the Rise to Power, where a renowned physicist and a team of technical specialists plot to overthrow a thoroughly corrupt American government and replace it with a dictatorship .
          If you liked William Peter Blatty’s ‘The Exorcist’ then you might enjoy ‘The Messiah Complex’ How far would you go to rescue your child from a kidnapper? What if the kidnapper was a demonic figure? What if your child was being held in hell itself? Would you risk eternal damnation to save that child? Would you go that far?
          Do you enjoy ghost stories like Poltergeist? If so, you might want to give The Dead Machine a look. What if ghosts are actually the spirits of evil and predatory men and women who were denied heaven and damned to walk the Earth for all eternity? What if a scientist creates a machine to talk to them only to later discover that the machine also makes it possible for those dead criminal souls to take over the bodies of the living?
          Or what if you prefer something written in the classic style, like Jane Eyre or Little Women? Then I suggest you pick up Tilde, a truly engaging story of a bi-polar young artist making her way through the difficult days of the Great Depression.
So before you download Steven King’s 11/22/63 or Grisham’s The Litigators, both at $12.99 each (and who can blame you? They’re both very good books.) Why not stop by and add one of the above to your Christmas list? (most are only $2.99 during this holiday season) You may very well find yourself a new favorite.


Friday, December 16, 2011

Rebel, Rebel

          I wrote a short story a while ago called “How to Write a Literary Masterpiece”. (see above slideshow)
It’s a comedy that points out the absurd commonalities in most so-called classic literature. For example, these novels usually take place during some horrible time in history and highlight the suffering of some particular group of people. (The Holocaust, the Great Depression, the Civil War, etc.) The characters usually include the fresh-faced youngster, the hard-working parent, the affable black friend/servant/confident, the reluctant co-conspirator and of course, the authoritarian oppressor. They’re written to tug at your heartstrings and leave you with the feeling that if you stand up for what’s right; you will win out over all obstacles.
          History has proven otherwise. Again, and again and again.
          And just when I thought such ridiculously stupid novels had been relegated to the landfill of history, out comes ‘The Help.’
          Having only seen the movie I can’t comment on the book but I’m willing to bet the screenwriter didn’t stray too far. Does it possess all the elements of a so-called masterpiece? You bet’cha! The horrible time in history? The civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties. The oppressed group? African-American maids in the affluent south. The socially conscious fresh-faced girl? Front and center! Reluctant co-conspirator? Steps right up when all seems lost. Authoritarian Oppressor? Why it’s those evil, evil southerners.
          Now this makes for a great read right?
          Maybe, maybe not.
          That’s not my issue. My issue is that asinine propaganda like The Help is what gets people hurt and sometimes killed. What should be explained to all those socially conscious fresh-faced kids is that throughout history rebels/protesters/rabble rousers were routinely beaten senseless, stabbed, hanged, poisoned and shot. They should be reminded again and again that the Status Quo has money, power and influence and will not go quietly into that good night.
           And in the case of that fresh-faced girl in The Help, she probably would have been thrown into the back of a panel van and then beaten and raped. Her parent’s home would have been fire-bombed, a cross burned on their lawn and the family ostracized by the community.
          Does any of this happen in the movie?
          What the story does tell us is if you stand up for what’s right, if you demand change, if you fight the good fight and challenge the Powers-That-Be, you will be successful and live a long and happy life.
I don’t think Dr. Martin Luther King, or Mahatma Gandhi or Malcolm X or Nathan Hale or those kids at Kent State would agree with that conclusion.
Rebellion is serious, very dangerous, and when necessary, worth the all risks. But before some high-mined fiction novel convinces you to march gallantly into the breach, take a moment to reflect on Valley Forge and the British prison ships, then on Gettysburg and Andersonville, especially if the thought of being pepper sprayed, handcuffed and jailed gives you pause.
          This is not to say that I am against fighting for a cause, In fact, I firmly believe in the old saying, “In order for evil to succeed, all that is needed is for good people to do nothing.” But novels like The Help should come with this disclaimer.
This is a work of pure fiction featuring characters rebelling against established authority. While they are successful, in most instances rebellions fail and their participants are jailed, tortured and executed. The author strongly suggests that you do not embrace any radical cause or political agenda unless you are willing to die for it.
          That’s right, die for it.

           Can I get an Amen? 

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Many Faces of Uncle Zack

      One of the very few advantages of living into your 50’s is that during that decade the universe lets you in on certain little secrets. I recently discovered that I have two distinct personalities. Not in the Sybil or three faces of Eve sort of disorder, but the world sees different me’s at different times. I call them Stageshow Johnny and the Dullard.
      Stageshow Johnny is the me most people meet at social gatherings. He is funny, quick-witted, talented and usually the life of the party. He can do all kinds of amazing things that often amazes him as much as it amazes the people he’s entertaining. The problem is that being Stageshow Johnny is exhausting and breeds resentment and hostility from regular guys whose wives or girlfriends are suddenly flirting with him.
      At one party Stageshow told a story that left everybody in stitches. Everyone laughed except one guy. Later, now very drunk, he comes over to Stageshow (who has now reverted to the Dullard) and is sitting alone, trying to look inconspicuous.
      “Think you’re funny, huh?” he asks, “like being a big shot? Think you’re better than everyone else; think you’re better than me?”
      Problem is the Dullard has no answer for this. The Dullard avoids people, is hypersensitive, shy and possesses the social skills of a bag of cement. The Dullard is the personality who spends 8 to 10 hours copyediting, or photo shopping, or some other mind-numbing task. He is also wary of people so he keeps to himself. And now he has to deal with this ‘You think you’re better than me,’ crap. Well he can’t.
      But Stageshow can.
      “Do I think I’m better than you?” Stageshow replies with a look of mock puzzlement. “Well of course I think I’m better than you. I think I’m better than everybody. What, you somebody special? You think you’re the only person I’m not better than, huh? The only one? Wow, you got some ego, pal.”
     This cracks everyone up and embarrasses drunk guy who will spend the next decade plotting revenge on the Dullard, who as a result, will become even more withdrawn.
      The Dullard causes an equal amount of trouble but in his own way. Every so often, a person who was introduced to Stageshow at a party or music fair or book fair sees him, comes over and tries to engage him in conversation only to discover that the Dullard has nothing to say.
      “What’s the matter, you sick or something?” the Stageshow devotee asks as the conversation falls flat. “You were all buddy, buddy, with me at the party but now you’re giving me the cold shoulder?”
      The Dullard has now all but shut down, anticipating a barrage of hateful and insulting comments when Stageshow Johnny shows up and subsequently make things worse.
      “I believe there’s been a misunderstanding,” he says. “You have apparently mistaken me for my twin brother Zackary. When you said we met at a party I realized you thought I was him. I’m Ignatius, nice to meet you.” With that Stageshow sticks out his hand. The guy shakes it. Confused, he eyes Stageshow and says, “I’m sorry, it’s just that you’re a dead ringer for your brother. Speaking of which, how’s your brother doing?”
      “He’s dead. He was riding on one of those Florida Everglades boats, you know, the ones with the big metal fans on the back. Well, his flipped over and before he could reach land he was set upon and eaten by crocodiles, which was quite serendipitous because in his last novel, titled, “Geez, I Hope We Don’t Get Eaten by Crocodiles, the main characters, while sitting on the porch drinking Kentucky bourbon are set upon and eaten by crocodiles. Isn’t it amazing how life imitates art?”  
      The guy smiles oddly then makes his excuses to be on his way. Stageshow feels amazingly clever, the Dullard throws up.  

Friday, November 25, 2011

Johnny Gun and the Plot Contrivances

I wrote a short story some time ago about a hero who traveled from novel to novel fighting tired and worn out plot contrivances interjected into story lines. Seriously, how many times are we going to stand for our heroes escaping their prisons through the air vent, or abandoned sewer pipe.

If I were a super-villain that would be the first thing I’d check if I was going to imprison somebody.

Then there is always the casual comment made to the main character that permits him/her to solve the seemingly unsolvable quandary they have been battling with since the story started.
An example:  While Albert Einstein is hard at work trying to hash out his relativity theory some minor character casually says, “Hey Al, did you see the E channel has MC hammer on twice tonight?” This of course shakes Einstein out of his deep concentration. He then turns and asks minor character to repeat it and after they do, Einstein thrusts his finger into the air and says “Of course! E equals MC twice, no not twice, squared! Then turns to the minor character and says, “Thanks meaningless character who just showed up, for providing the plot contrivance that permits me to solve this unsolvable problem.”
Seriously folks, that’s not the way it works. I have been creating things my entire life and that has NEVER happened. Here’s how it goes. You have a problem that needs to be solved. You can only work on it so long before you brain tires and wanders off. Your subconscious however, picks up the slack. Then, usually while you’re in the middle of doing something else, the answer will pop right into your head and you have to scramble for something to write on, THAT VERY FREAKING MINUTE OR YOU WILL LOSE IT! This can be very frustrating if you just happen to be in the middle of a job interview, skiing down the side of a mountain or making love to your wife. (If the third one happens I suggest you read my book ‘When Long Term Marriages Go Horribly Wrong.’)

There are numerous others that Johnny Gun will introduce you to when my short story book, Storytime comes out in early 2012. But until then gang, plot contrivances? Just say no. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A reasonable solution to the tax rate issue

Politically I am a radical moderate who believes the only sustainable solution to any impasse is compromise. You get something, we get something, you give up something, we do too. Right now our system is seriously broken and yet our elected leaders seem willing to let the system collapse rather than to give any leeway to the opposition.
I have a different idea. I call it the Zackary Richards Plan and overall it’s beneficial to both Republicans and Democrats.
On a recent news show Warren Buffet pointed out that he (billionaire) was paying 17% in taxes while his secretary (middle-class) was paying 28%. Some said that was very unfair while others claimed that people like Buffet, who create jobs, should be given tax breaks so they can create more jobs. Both arguments have some validity but what’s missing is verification. We have had the Bush tax cuts for ten years now and there are fewer jobs than ever. So apparently somebody is pocketing the money without doing what the tax cuts were designed to do, create jobs.
So here’s what we do to fix that
Bump up the ‘job creators’ like Buffet to the middle class rate (28%) on January 1 while at the same time, create a tax rate scale that lowers the tax rate on those in upper management who actually create full time jobs and hire AMERICAN workers. For example say my company has 100 full time employees and I hire 5 more after January 1st, then my taxes and those of my management team would decrease (by how much I would leave to those in tax accounting) if those 5 are still employed by December 31. The more jobs we create the lower our tax rate would be until finally capping at the original 17% .
On the other side of the coin, those in upper management who downsize AMERICAN workers and cut jobs would find their taxes increasing by the same percentage rate until it caps out at whatever the highest tax rate was  (I believe it was 36-38% but again I leave that to those in tax accounting)
This, my friends, is verification. In addition it encourages companies to hire AMERICAN workers who in turn will pay taxes which will make up for the lost revenue brought about by upper management’s lower tax rate. It will also increase revenue from the added taxes placed on those in upper management who blunder and stumble their way to lay-offs and plant closings.
So, in the long run, the real ‘job creators’ will have their lower tax rate. We will have lower unemployment. It will revitalize the middle class whose buying habits fuel this economy and address the concerns of both the tea party and the OWS
No doubt there will be those who disagree with this plan and that’s fine with me, however, if my plan makes sense to you and think others should know about it, please e-mail, SHARE or Tweet this to friends, family and associates and maybe something will get done. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How serious are you about writing?

When I first started submitting short stories to various contests I didn't win but did receive critiques of my work by established writers. One of the comment that struck me the hardest was one that read. "Here is a guy who is going to get real good real fast but, he must first get serious, put in the effort and learn his trade.
But he was right. Writing is a trade  that requires time and effort. From my experience it usually takes 10 years (that's right 10 years!) before you've found your writing voice and the skill to effectively communicate it. As an author and publisher people often ask me to publish their novels. I tell them no. Why? Because a real writer has taken the time to do the preliminaries. They know what type of books you publish, they know how to write a query letter, they know how to market their work, they know the BUSINESS!
Like most authors you look back on your early work and cringe. Yet at the time you were convinced it was a work of unmitigated genius. I often compare becoming a successful writer to becoming a professional baseball player. First and most importantly, you must have talent. Without it you're wasting every body's time. Secondly you must learn the skills to properly harvest that talent. Young baseball players are send to the minor leagues to hone their abilities, you as an aspiring novelist needs hone yours as well. Take a class on proper grammar and structure, join a writer's group and most importantly develop a thick skin because it is the critic's job to point out your flaws and mistakes, usually as hurtful as possible.
This is how we learn. So, if you are indeed serious about becoming a writer, then write every possible moment, have that work critiqued, learn from the criticisms and make the proper adjustments. Here is an important point. If you read your story in front of an audience and they don't understand it. They are not at fault, you are. As the writer it is your responsibility to craft your writing in such a way that anyone, perhaps even a well trained dog can understand it.