Ballbreakers (game show)

For a fleeting moment in July 2005, members of the billiards community were aroused by a new billiards television show – specifically, a billiards game show featuring both amateur “pool sharks” and celebrities – that debuted on the Game Show Network.

Produced by Sokolobl Entertainment, the show Ballbreakers (originally titled No Limit 9 Ball) consisted of contestants competing in 9-ball for a chance to win $20,000.  Giving the show its billiards imprimatur was Ewa Mataya Laurance (“The Striking Viking”), who provided commentary on game play and expert advice on shots if asked by the players, as well as Mars Callahan, the director of Poolhall Junkies, who was the show’s co-executive producer.   Adding to the show’s popular appeal was Adrianne Curry, winner of the first season of America’s Top Model, who served as the series’ “Rack Girl.”

Ballbreakers - CoverWith its cover story in the July 2005 issue of Pool & Billiard Magazine, the show sparked a brief surge of debate about its merit and role in improving the popular image of pool.  Rob Lobl, one of the show’s creators, said, “Pool is coolest in the movies…and the lamest thing on TV.”  His partner, Sam Sokolow, added, “With the right set, the right format, we knew we could come up with the coolest pool show ever…the sky is the limit.”

But, among billiards players, the reactions were more polarizing, even before it premiered.  One person posting in the Billiards Digest Forum said, “This program will probably bring more interest to the game and more pool players.”  While another person countered by saying, “Great.  Another dumbass show to lower the bar…whatever happened to elegance and the beauty of this game to those who really can play.”

In hindsight, Ballbreakers had very little impact on billiards.  This was, in a large part, because the show wasn’t particularly good, and it was cancelled in 2006.   Why, you might ask?  Let’s start with the premise: watching amateur players compete in 9-ball is only interesting to watch on TV if the billiards-playing is decent.  But, the contestants never ran more than a few shots and often missed easy ones.  Similar to hearing bad jokes told at an amateur comedy show, some of the playing became downright cringe-worthy.

This “lousy pool” dynamic in turn made the Striking Viking’s job as commentator kind of a joke, too.  Laurance may be an ESPN commentator, a member of the Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame, and a winner of all the major events on the WPBA tour, but even she couldn’t breathe much excitement into average playing and positioning.

The addition of Sal Masekela (X Games) as host also did little to dial up the engagement factor, especially because he was asked to treat the contestants as caricatures (e.g., the gay player “Cupcake,” the big player “Beefcake, etc.).  I did, however, enjoy his catchphrase, “Good luck.  Break some balls.”

A group of b- and c-list celebrities, including Tia Carrere (Wayne’s World), Lou Diamond Phillips (La Bamba) and Noah Wyle (ER) also joined two episodes of the series to boost ratings, but had little long-term impact.  However, at least one of those celebrities – Dorian Harewood – gets an honorary shout-out from me, for he also appeared 6 years earlier in the pool movie Kiss Shot, the topic of a future blog post.

I’ve included above one full episode of Ballbreakers, divided into four segments.  Watch them all, but I encourage you to check out the most novel part of the episode, which was Laurance’s introduction of the game “Jawbreakers” (Segment 2, 7:38) to get table control in the 2nd round.  It’s an interesting game designed to test how fast the players can pocket the 6 balls arranged next to the 6 pockets on the table.  But, like the show itself, it quickly falls apart.

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The Cuemaker

In 2012, Gary Chin, a 20-year-old film student at Ithaca College in upstate New York, directed and produced a 19-minute documentary about Dana Paul, an impressive 64-year-old local artisan, who makes custom pool cues and espresso tampers.   Entitled The Cuemaker, the short film, which won Chin a Best Director award at the 2012 Honey and Buddy Documentary Film Festival, is largely not about the technical aspects of making cue sticks, but more about the passion and commitment Paul brings to his craft.

The CuemakerChin, a rising pool player and the president of Ithaca College’s Billiards Club, starts his documentary with his personal quest to “take [his]game to the next level by building a custom cue,” specifically a 19.5-oz jump break cue.  That quest leads him to Paul, the resident cue repair and cue-building expert.  Along his quest, he also attends the 2012 Super Billiards Expo in Philadelphia, where he observes Shane Van Boening, currently ranked #1 in the US, win the Ten-Ball Players Championship.

But, Chin’s quest is intentionally subsumed under Paul’s larger “quest for [cue-making] perfection.”  It is powerful to hear a craftsman talk with such pride about his trade. Speaking to Chin, Paul says, “I am not attached to [a] particular piece of wood…I’m attached to the idea that it will become, it not treasured, at least respected by you or maybe even your children.  He then later adds, “I am not obsessed but I am determined….I want to love the cue because I want it to be an example of my most prodigious effort to do the best I can do with a cue.”

In the end, Chin, with Paul’s obvious assistance, does make himself the perfect jump break cue.  But, it’s also clear that Paul will forever chase that state of perfection.   If I were currently investing in a cue stick, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

The Cuemaker is available to order on DVD only through Gary Chin’s website.  A preview trailer for the documentary is below. You can also show your support for Chin by liking his Facebook page for The Cuemaker.  To see more of Dana Paul’s woodwork, visit his Tamperista website.

The Baron and the Kid

As far back as 1906, there have been movies based on songs, such as the silent short Waiting at the Church, based on the music hall song of the same name by Vesta Victoria.  Over the years, the genre has expanded to include more well-known movies, such as Alice’s Restaurant, Yellow Submarine, The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, and Born in East L.A.

To this atypical list, we must also add the 1984 made-for-TV-movie, The Baron and the Kid, directed by Gary Nelson and starring Johnny Cash as William “The Baron” Addington.

The Baron and the KidBased on Cash’s 1980 song “The Baron,” the title track of his 1981 Columbia Records album of the same name, The Baron and the Kid was derided by pundits as a feeble attempt to follow in the footprint of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler (1980) – another movie based on a song – and rope in those same fans.  (There is something inherently in the story-driven DNA of C&W songs that lends themselves to movie translation. See also Convoy; Ode to Billy Joe; and Take This Job and Shove It.)

In any event, this criticism is not entirely unfounded.  The Baron and the Kid follows the basic sentimental father-son drama as The Gambler in that it casts Cash as an ex-pool hustler determined to rectify the wrongs of his violent, alcoholic past life by establishing a relationship with his son, Billy Joe “The Cajun Kid” Stanley (Greg Webb), who his ex-wife Dee Dee Stanley (June Carter Cash) had kept a secret for 18 years.

Wish I had a known ya
When you were a little younger
Around me you might have learned
a thing or two
If I had known you longer
You might be a little stronger
And maybe you’d shoot straighter
Then you doooo

Not surprisingly, that reunion doesn’t go swimmingly well at first, especially since the Cajun Kid, now a successful small Southern town hustler, has no interest changing his cue stick ways and listening to the Man in Black.

Apparently, when there is “nothing to lose, everything to win,” the only way to forge a father-son bond and remedy almost two decades of absence is to bond over billiards on the road and get “in the zone…a combination of what experience tells you to do, the ego wants you to do, and the nerves will let you do.”  This includes competing against Dr. Pockett (played by the perfectly named Earl Poole Ball, Johnny Cash’s pianist of 20 years) in a double-elimination tournament;  playing a “10-game freeze out” against the menacing Frosty (memorably and most ironically played by Richard Roundtree a.k.a. “Shaft”) and his posse of rednecks;  and trading shots with trick-shot legend Mike Massey, who makes a cameo as a rival 9-ball player.

Regardless of the predictable plot, the fact is any billiards movie starring Johnny Cash gets a thumbs-up from me.  And, without question, this is a billiards movie.  It opens with an incredible series of pool shots performed by Cash (reflecting the brilliance of technical adviser Mike Massey). There are then frequent pool games and demonstrations of pool prowess, including the introduction of Tracy Pollan (future spouse of Michael J. Fox) as pool-shooting Southern belle Mary Beth Phillips.  And, of course, like so many other billiards movies (e.g., The Color of Money; Up Against the 8 Ball; Kiss Shot), there is the culminating final tournament, in this case, the National Pocket Billiards 9-Ball Championship

And while the movie is rather hackneyed, it does introduce one aspect of pool that I’ve not seen in other movies – namely, the practice of ”jarring,” in which a player has his opponent’s drink spiked with drugs (e.g., amphetamine) to make him overconfident so that he’ll undertake impossible shots.  I couldn’t turn up much research on the practice, though a handful of message boards confirmed that “jarring” was done through the 1980s.  Of course, today in sports, the issue is less about drugging one’s opponent than it is about self-doping…yes, even in billiards.   Just ask German billiards champ Axel Buescher, who was stripped of his national carom billiards title in 2008.

The Baron and the Kid is widely available to rent or buy online.

The Baron and the Kid v2Additional information of interest:

Twilight Zone: A Game of Pool (Remake)

This post is in honor of the Canadian actor Maury Chaykin, who played James “Fats” Brown in this Twilight Zone episode.  On Saturday, it will have been 3 years since his passing.

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed the original “A Game of Pool” episode from The Twilight Zone that aired in 1961. It is arguably one of the best television episodes to focus on billiards.

In 1989, that episode was remade as part of CBS’ short-lived, three-season revival of The Twilight Zone.  The remake of “A Game of Pool,” now in color, casts Esai Morales as local pool shark Jesse Cardiff (originally played by Jack Klugman) and Maury Chaykin as the deceased James “Fats” Brown (originally played by Jonathan Winters).  For the most part, it’s the same story about a life/death bet to be the best pool player.  But, it can’t hold a candle to the original episode.

For starters, Morales and Chaykin were not well-cast.  Morales, an award-winning actor best known for his role on NYPD Blue, is too anxious and overblown in his portrayal of Cardiff.  And Chaykin, who fans fondly remember as the armchair detective Nero Wolfe, lacks the gentlemanly cool and confidence that Winters nailed.  Instead, he seems just pugnacious.

The switch from black-and-white to color also does not help.  The bar room atmosphere no longer feels so chilling and claustrophobic. Instead, it feels ordinary, like a TV studio set.  (Check out this great article on the visual treatment of the original Twilight Zone.)  Similarly, the addition of the jazz horn as background music fails to create tension and rather seems contrived.

The pool-playing is also notably different, and not for the better.  Both Morales and Chaykin look downright uncomfortable holding a cue.  It’s hard to imagine Cardiff being “the best” the way Morales holds and jerks the cue (see 10:39).  It’s also surprising that both players rely entirely on an open bridge, generally preferred by less experienced players.

Another subtle change in the pool-playing is the game of choice.  In the original, they opt to play 14.1 continuous pool (i.e., straight pool).  In the remake, they play rotation pool, a game largely popular in Asian countries.  The objective of rotation pool is to score the most points by pocketing higher-numbered balls than one’s opponent.  However, like 9-ball, the cue must always first strike the lowest-numbered ball on the table.

Finally, the major difference that most people note is the choice of ending.  While I won’t give it away entirely, let’s just say it’s not the same player who wins in the original.  Interestingly, the remake actually reflects the author George Clayton Johnson’s original script.  Is it a better ending?  That’s a coin toss to me.  Is it a better episode?  Not even close.

For additional commentary, check out  Postcards from the Zone.

[Wanted!] Lemon Tree Billiards House

[Periodically, I will publish posts on movies that I have been unable to find and watch.  These are part of my “Wanted!” series, and this is my first post in that series. If you know how to find a “Wanted!” movie, please let me know.  I will be most grateful.]

In 1996, director Tim Savage premiered his short film The Lemon Tree Billiards House at the Hawaii International Film Festival.  The film took first place in the short film category. It then aired on local Hawaii TV about 15 years ago in a time slot following the Super Bowl.  But, unfortunately, if, like me, you missed either of those showings, then you missed what was presumably a very entertaining tale that merged billiards with gangsters, and magical realism with local Hawaiian culture.

Lemon Tree title cardTo learn more about the movie and potentially find a copy, I successfully tracked down Dana Hankins, the President of RedHead Productions and the producer of The Lemon Tree Billiards House. She’s been immensely helpful and our exchanges have only furthered my wish to see this film.

The film is based on a short story of the same name written by Cedric Yamanaka.  It was originally published in Honolulu Magazine 15 years ago for a fiction-writing contest. Now, the story is available in his eight-story collection In Good Company as well as online as a PDF.

The story is about a college freshman, Mitch, who fancies himself somewhat of a pool hustler. After accepting an invitation to play 8-ball against an unknown opponent, he quickly learns that he will play the infamous, 265-pound Locust Cordero, widely believed to be a menacing, local hitman.  The wager: first person to win 6 games wins $500.  And while the pool game forms the “action” of the story, the real story ends up being about the similarities Locust and Mitch discover in one another.

Hankins shared with me that when she first read the story, she “loved the characters, the inclusion of pidgin (dialect), the quirkiness of the cultural beliefs and the element of magical realism.”  Local actors were cast, including a number of well-known Hawaiian comedians. That’s an interesting mix…probably the same way I might describe one of my favorite (non-billiards) movies of all time – Beasts of the Southern Wild — which amazingly and effectively used local actors, language, and cultural beliefs and interwove it with magical realism (particularly through the mind of Hushpuppy).

Hankins couldn’t promise me a date when the movie would become available once more, but she did say that she “intends to get the film cleared for internet streaming in order to share with long-time fans” and that it will likely be “combined with two other short festival films…all made in Hawaii…and all having moments of magical realism.”

If you’re as eager to see the film as I am, let me know or leave a comment.  I promise to share with her the feedback.

Kisses & Caroms

I remember the first time I saw Bob Clark’s 1982 movie Porky’s.  It felt like I was engaging in something forbidden, much like the oversexed high-schoolers do as they look through the peephole into the girls’ shower.

Looking at the poster of the 2006 billiards movie Kisses & Caroms (also known as American Pool), I assumed I would experience a similar feeling.  The movie’s titillating (pun intended) poster, featuring a woman’s private parts covered by a perfect rack (pun intended?), reminded me of the Black Crows’ Amorica album cover.  Like Porky’s, this movie screamed devilish and naughty in an R-rated, tongue-and-cheek manner.

Kisses and Caroms

And for the first 5 minutes, I thought this might just be the Porky’s of Pool.  Zack, the slightly dim-witted owner of Breakingtime Billiards, a pool table and gameroom supply store, awakens in a ménage a trois arranged by his girlfriend (Jennifer) and her able-bodied close friend (Tara).  I thought, “Well, it lacks the prankish humor and build-up of Porky’s, but this could be interesting…”

But, the humor never surfaced, the sexual action never continued, and, still worse, the billiards never materialized.  Instead, we’re left with a contrived story about a pathetic guy who can’t make up his mind about his ex-girlfriend relationship, and as a result, channels his annoyance into progressively more hostile conversations with his store’s annoying patrons, including the “Chalk Guy” and the “Naked White Guy.”  Shot on a budget of $11,000, the movie aspires to be Clerks in a pool supply store, but the dialogue is stilted and uninteresting, making me wonder if Clerks director Kevin Smith really said the film was “a sexy little day-in-the-lifer.”

There is some intermittent billiards playing on the store table, but it’s clear none of the actors have used a cue stick.  And, there’s one random sequence in which Tara (played by Playboy bombshell Nicole Rayburn), who we learn is not just a willing threesome participant but also a local pool star, hustles some yokels in a neighboring bar, but it’s a pointless scene meant only to further highlight Tara’s sex appeal.  But, this woman has nothing on billiards’ true beauties, the Rack Starz.

In summary, the movie has all the right influences, but when it came time to execute, Kisses & Caroms is one big table scratch.  It is widely available to buy or rent as DVD or online.

8-Ball: Coming to a Theater Near You

Suppose I told you there was an upcoming billiards movie that borrows storytelling, narration, and plot elements from Godfather Part II, GoodFellas, The Usual Suspects, and The Silence of the Lambs?

Yeah, I thought I might have your attention now.

Well, then get ready for 8-Ball, a billiards crime drama that is expected to be released at the New York Film Festival this September.

8 Ball

I had the pleasure of interviewing David Barroso, the lead actor and executive producer of 8-Ball.  Though he was on only 2 hours of sleep, Barroso was incredibly personable and talkative about the film, and his passion and enthusiasm were contagious.

Barroso was rather secretive about the complete plot, but the gist of the story is that it begins 10 years ago with a fateful encounter at a pool hall in Queens, New York, between Ramone Torzo, the neighborhood mobster, who is a great pool player, and four neighborhood friends.  When a phony bet is made on a game of 8-ball, the situation goes horribly wrong, and Torzo is forced to flee across the country. As the film shifts from black-and-white to color, the story picks up a decade later with Torzo, having left his billiards life (among other things) behind, comfortably settled into the Hollywood lifestyle.  But, that ability to escape his past is threatened when a local cop, who is also a pool player, finds him, threatening to undermine his new lifestyle.

Seemingly, it’s a thriller that has the usual share of twists, suspense and dead bodies.  But, this story is based on the life of a real mobster, for whom “pool was his life.” And so while gangster movie fans will rejoice over the newest true crime biopic, billiards movies fans will equally celebrate a movie in which one-third focuses on pool (and was filmed on location between Rack Em-Up in Queens and Mr. Pockets in Manhattan Beach, CA).

The story behind the movie is as compelling as the movie itself.  Much of the movie was filmed 10 years ago by David Manzano, the original director and writer.  But, the movie stalled when Manzano left to pursue his music career.  Fortunately, Barroso would not let the movie wither.  He says, “I wanted to get this movie done.  I owed it to a lot of people.” Along with cinematographer Adrian Manzano, Barroso committed himself to raising the financing and finishing the movie, which included filming the remaining 40-50%, attracting all-star talent like actor Paul Ben-Victor (who fans of The Wire will forever remember as Spiros “Vondas” Vondopoulos) and assembling a killer soundtrack with music from The Rolling Stones, James Brown, and Eminem.

So, whether you’re a movie lover or a pool player, keep your eyes open for 8-Ball.  Fingers crossed it will premiere at the New York Film Festival, before moving on to the Hollywood Film Festival (October), the 10th Annual Big Apple Film Festival (November) and the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City (January).  And, if all goes well, we should see it on the big screen in select cities around April, 2014.

For ongoing updates, check out the film’s Facebook page and homepage.