THE GOOD DINOSAUR (Movie Review)

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**1/2 out of ****
Rated PG
for peril, action, and thematic elements
Released: November 25, 2015
Runtime: 100 minutes
 (including the Pixar Short “Sanjay’s Super Team”)
Starring (the voices of):  Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Raymond Ochoa, Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, Steve Zahn

(read my interview with the director and cast here)

Barely living up to its title, The Good Dinosaur is a disappointing and surprisingly conventional effort from Pixar Animation Studios.

Twenty years ago, Pixar set the Gold Standard for feature animation in the modern era with the original Toy Story. They’ve continued to do that with original ideas, sharp humor, surprising sophistication, and tear-jerking emotion, all while actually taking chances on hard-sell high concepts (such as this past summer’s superior Inside Out).

Yet while The Good Dinosaur boasts some of the best visuals ever seen in animation (Pixar or otherwise), this generic and, at times, embarrassingly derivative effort (cribbing tropes from major Disney films and Western classics) falls below the high bar that the studio has long set for itself. Sure, it should easily entertain kids and possibly provide a passable charm for adults, but its inability to capture our imaginations or our hearts will likely make The Good Dinosaur one of Pixar’s least beloved efforts.

The film starts with an intriguing hook…and then completely wastes it. Its alternate timeline is based on this premise: “What if the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs never actually hit the earth?” How it answers that question, unfortunately, isn’t anything out of the ordinary of what you’d expect from an animated movie about dinosaurs.

It’s centuries past the dinosaur expiration date, and their intelligence has evolved to early levels of human community and technology (farming, ranching, etc.). But anthropomorphizing animals is nothing new; in fact, it’s what animated movies do. That’s their thing.

The alternate earth timeline does afford dinosaurs and humans to be on the planet at the same time (though again, far from a novel concept), but even that is only explored at a basic level – as opposed to, say, imagining what the world would be like today if dinosaurs had never left. That could open a whole slew of creative possibilities. Instead, we have a prehistoric boy with talking dinos. Not awful, but not terribly inspired either.

This wouldn’t even be much of a gripe, of course, if the actual story being told resonated in any particular way. Instead, the first act gives us a very standard father/son story, in which Arlo – the smallest, weakest dino child of three – struggles to make his mark on the family farm, so he sets out into the wilderness to see if he can prove himself there. Along the way, Arlo befriends a lost – and un-evolved – human boy who acts like a dog, barking and panting while running around on all fours. This offers a cute twist on the “boy and his dog” dynamic, (Arlo even names him “Spot”), but that too only sticks to well-worn conventions.

Their journey meanders through an episodic hodgepodge of moments and concepts. Some work better than others (like The Pet Collector, a hilariously bizarre character – voiced by director Pete Sohn – that could’ve served the movie better beyond one scene), but even when they do, the entertainment value is fleeting.

The growing bond between Arlo and Spot is supposed to be the connective tissue (both narratively and emotionally) through all the randomness, but with characters so thinly drawn it never comes together. Falling back on doe-eyed adorableness or cuddly snuggles to elicit cheap “awwww”s from the audience only goes so far.

A family of T-Rex ranchers is the film’s most effective detour, especially as its patriarch Butch provides the perfect opportunity for Sam Elliott – icon of modern day Westerns and cult favorites like The Big Lebowski – to finally add his voice to the Pixar canon. Elliott’s deep and instantly identifiable drawl is like comfort food, and it strikes the perfect tone for Butch who serves as a “surrogate father” catalyst when Arlo needs it most. Seeing the three T-Rexes herd bison is also a well-conceived treat. But again – while fun, it’s also fleeting.

Some of Arlo’s encounters are truly bizarre, whether it be a scary trio of pterodactyls, another trio of dino scavengers (a redux of The Lion King hyenas – which isn’t the only time this rips off of that Disney favorite), or a G-rated LSD trip by way of fermented wild berries. The comedy, too, is desperate. Pixar’s sharp wit is largely absent here, instead resorting mostly to “pee” jokes and the like. Attempts at emotional heart-tugging are also cheap, and the film’s lessons are spelled out in contrived axioms time and again. The Good Dinosaur simply tries too hard in ways too obvious to be crazy, funny, moving, and wise.

While the characters and narrative struggle, the film’s landscapes are breathtaking. From specific detail to epic scope, The Good Dinosaur is as cinematic an animated movie as Hollywood has produced. The photo-real quality often blurs the line between “animation” and “visual effects”, though, a sensibility that’s impressive on its face but diminishes the stylized palette we enjoy from the genre.

Look, if Jurassic World proved anything, it’s that there’s an endless appetite for dinosaur movies. That must be why, when the decision was made to scrap the work on this film halfway through, Pixar chose to forge ahead with a reboot rather than kill the project entirely (as they’ve done with other failed developments). The end result of this makeover is a movie that relies on the easiest, safest ideas every step of the way. Clever nuggets still emerge throughout (this is Pixar, after all), but they’re light seasoning on a bland entrée.

For all I know, this might be good enough to score big box office and maybe even a sequel or two. I mean, Cars 3 is on the way so anything’s possible, right? Still, even if The Good Dinosaur proves to be merchandizing gold, it will never hold our affections like Pixar’s best always has and, no doubt, will again.

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Pixar’s THE GOOD DINOSAUR Was Almost Extinct (FEATURE STORY)

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In early November, I was able to sit down and talk with the filmmakers of Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, including director Peter Sohn and voice cast members Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, and Jeffrey Wright. You can read about our conversation (click here) at Crosswalk.com

The Good Dinosaur opens in theaters Wednesday November 25th.

(You can read my official review of The Good Dinosaur by clicking here.)

DANCES WITH WOLVES at 25

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I’m as big a fan of the Academy Awards as they come, but it’s foolish to judge movies based on Oscar wins and losses. It’s unfair to the films themselves, not to mention our own perception of them.

There’s perhaps no better example of this than Dances With Wolves, winner of 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Director for star Kevin Costner. From that ceremony to this day, many serious film critics and cinephiles have berated Dances With Wolves, in part, on the basis that the long-overdue Martin Scorsese deserved Oscar gold for what many consider his masterpiece, Goodfellas. (The Academy finally made amends in 2006 with Scorsese’s The Departed.) In their minds, Costner had no business as a first-time director defeating America’s premiere auteur.

Suffice it to say, that Oscar battle (over which Costner had no control) should in no way color our final view of either film’s merits. In truth, they’re both American classics. Dances With Wolves plays more closely to Academy voter sensibilities, to be sure, but perhaps the most decisive factor was this: while the greatness of Goodfellas surprised no one, the artistic and financial success of Dances With Wolves defied a negative pre-release buzz which had, sight unseen, branded the epic a complete and total failure.

Before hitting theaters nationwide on November 21, 1990, “Kevin’s Gate” (as it was infamously dubbed) had all the tell-tale signs of a disaster in the making. A passion project by a Hollywood A-lister who’d never directed. A troubled shoot beset by multiple delays. It eventually went over-schedule (the Bison Hunt sequence itself took 3 weeks) and over-budget (Costner had to pitch in $3 million of his own money just to keep the production going).

To compound the difficulties, once word got out that the final cut would be three hours, that half of it would be subtitled from the Native American Lakota language, and more would be narrated in journal entry voice-over, the expectation was that this Kevin Costner vanity project would be dead on arrival.

Then it opened, and every elitist naysaying prediction instantly vanished.

Though it never reached #1 on any given weekend (due to the Home Alone juggernaut that had begun just five days prior), Dances With Wolves was embraced, praised, and beloved by critics and audiences alike (CinemaScore reported the extremely rare “A+” average grade from viewers). It consistently stayed in the Top 5 for its first three months, and then returned to that sphere for the month following its Oscar sweep.

But the question now is, 25 years later, does it hold up? Between its current 82% rating on Rotten Tomatoes along with some gradual post-Awards revisionism that it’s too soft (some detractors have vilified Dances With Wolves as a “White Savior” movie, a slander that shortsightedly belies the film’s final act), the long-term impression that began to evolve was that it’s a good-but-not-great epic at best, and narcissistically indulgent at worst. Costner films like Waterworld and The Postman no doubt helped fuel that sentiment.

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(Claims that Dances With Wolves whitewashes history are undercut by powerful shots like this one. In a single frame, we see how indicting the material is – through thoughtful, intentional cinematic expression no less, rather than soapbox preaching.)

Yet after revisiting it this past week, I’d confidently suggest that not only is it at as good as it’s ever been but, perhaps bolder still, it’s even better than you remember it (regardless of what that memory may be). 25 years on, Dances With Wolves truly stands as one of the great American movies.

The first thing that stands out in its “looks like a suicide” opening prologue is how Dances With Wolves resurrected Westerns from the cultural scrap heap: it modernized them. A genre defined by stark black-and-white morality, we’re instantly thrown into a story of a hero who wants to kill himself. From there, the movie continues to evolve in shades of gray, humanizing the traditional good guys and the bad – or, respectively, the White Men and Native Americans. The former are no longer bastions of virtue and the latter no longer crude barbarians.

But neither are the roles simply reversed. Instead, what we see is perhaps the first fully authentic vision of humanity on the American frontier. In both races and cultures, we see that some are savages, others are noble warriors, others still are peacemakers, and the rest just want to live simple lives with their families. In this Western, both cultures are like every culture, filled with the breadth of the good and the bad that is universal to all nations and peoples. In this fundamental regard, Dances With Wolves is nuanced and true.

Through it all, Costner does right by the story, the characters, the history, and his craft. As a director and actor, he’s always in service of the film and not the other way around. It’s the “vanity project” that doesn’t feel like one.

That’s saying something for a three-hour movie, but even its length defies the notion of excess. Could it be shorter, even by a full hour? Sure, the story could. But not the themes. Not the characters and relationship arcs. Not the re-examination of the American Frontier. The “extra” hour makes it all real; it makes it resonate. It allows the material and its ideas to breathe; for us to contemplate them, and be moved by them. The beautiful irony here is that the length of the piece makes Dances With Wolves less pretentious, not more. The three-hour “indulgence” actually makes for a more humble work (a virtue only enhanced by the four-hour director’s cut).

So yes, not only does Dances With Wolves hold up. I dare say it has improved with time. Its merits are now more clear, and anyone’s opinion of it – good or bad – would only increase on a fresh viewing. It’s easier, also, to now see how it helped raise the sophistication of the masses. After Dances, lengthy epics not only returned but could be hits. Subtitles were no longer audience kryptonite. We saw broad, epic ambition again – from Unforgiven to Braveheart to The English Patient to Titanic – be rewarded at the Oscars and the box office. It also inspired other genres to be reinvented and reborn; its difficult to imagine a three-hour-plus blockbuster take on Lord of the Rings being possible – let alone being taken seriously – without the road that Dances With Wolves first paved.

But even with all the ways this film changed the industry, Dances With Wolves still towers as a self-contained masterpiece in its own right, by its own account, in the vacuum of its own self, free of any exterior context or influence. There are too many moments to list that strike our emotions deep (and too many more shots to gawk over and praise), so I’ll just mention one. The one that still always gets me.

In the Sioux tribe that Costner’s John Dunbar befriends, there’s a young warrior who’s initially skeptical. Upon their first meeting, this warrior is compelled to show strength and strike fear, charging Dunbar as he yells, “I am Wind In His Hair! Do you see that I am not afraid of you?!” It’s an intense moment that, once over, causes Dunbar to collapse where he stands. And then hours later, after we’ve gone through this long and powerful journey, to see the film conclude with a callback to that initial aggression, and then flip it on its head, well, it’s an unforgettable moment of soulful, heartbreaking pathos.

Defying all rules, setbacks, and expectations, Dances With Wolves inspired an entire industry to take risks again. 25 years later, in what is probably the most calculated and risk-averse era in Hollywood history, we could use another one just like it.

SPOTLIGHT (Movie Review)

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**** out of ****

My review of Spotlight (click here), at Crosswalk.com, about the 2001 Boston Globe investigation into the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal.

Winner of two Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay (2015).

Spotlight is ranked #4 on my Top Ten List for 2015.

An excerpt from my review:

Spotlight is a sober, sensitive look at some very hard truths, one that is concerned exclusively with the facts, not in making a commentary on their source.”

To read the rest of the full review, click here.

Now available to stream on Netflix.

Rated R
for strong language, including references to sex and sexual abuse
Released: November 6, 2015 – NY/LA; wide November 20.
Runtime: 128 minutes
Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian d’Arcy James, Billy Crudup

BROOKLYN (Movie Review)

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**** out of ****

Rated PG-13
for a scene of sexuality and brief strong language
Released: November 6, 2015
 limited; expands Wednesday November 25
Runtime: 111 minutes
Directed by: John Crowley
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Domhnall Gleeson

Brooklyn is ranked #3 on my Top Ten List for 2015

One of those so-called “chick flicks” but with legit Oscar aspirations, Brooklyn elevates its own genre in ways few romances have in a long, long time. Adapted by the superb Nick Hornby, it’s based on a novel and feels like it, full of rich characters, complexities, themes, and desires, all nostalgically rendered against a transatlantic backdrop. Both sprawling and intimate, Brooklyn isn’t just one of the best films of the year but, from lush visuals to awakening passions, it’s possibly the most beautiful.

Set in the early pre-Rock & Roll 1950s, Brooklyn doesn’t cover the same territory of time, place, or societal dynamics as Downton Abbey, but it plays to the same audience. And while even further removed from the mid-1800s by a whole century, it strikes a sentimental kinship with the works of Jane Austen. Like those beloved novels (and their various adaptations), this is certain to join the favored ranks of women everywhere to become a shared, enduring touchstone. Suffice it to say, for as conventional as it appears on the surface (and even in many of its particulars), Brooklyn is emotionally transcendent.

From the start, we become deeply invested in Eilis (pronounced AY-lish) – a young Irish woman searching for purpose in America – as an immigrant first, long before she becomes an ingénue. Leaving behind a mother and sister to find a new life (and herself) in New York, the first half-hour captures the thrill and fear of pursuing a dream that exists in the distant unknown, and braving it alone.

From a seasick trip across the Atlantic to homesick struggles in the titular borough, we experience Eilis’s self-doubts on an astonishingly personal level. Saoirse Ronan doesn’t just portray Eilis’s nerves and anxieties: she transfers them to us by cinematic osmosis, not with neurotic physical ticks and impulses but rather an internal typhoon of emotion that she fights – and occasionally fails – to suppress. Leavening these trials are her fellow female Irish immigrants, whom Eilis lives with at a Catholic boarding house. They are a lively, spunky, but down-to-earth bunch that, along with Julie Walters’ charmingly frank headmistress, makes for a surrogate Austen sisterhood.

This is all amplified exponentially when, at a neighborhood dance, Eilis meets Tony, a dreamy young Italian with brooding Brando looks and boyish James Dean charm. Their chemistry is potent, popping off the screen with a high swoon quotient. But as their love grows, it’s complicated by Ireland’s pull on Eilis, especially in her unbreakable bond with the sister that stayed behind to care for their mother. Through Eilis’s heartrending story – the decisions she must face and the choices she must make – we experience love’s joy and its weight.

It’s not a Coming Of Age tale, per se (which is more commonly equated with adolescence), although it has those elements. Rather, it’s the story of becoming a woman, from the obsession of first love to the challenge of obligations, of discovering when to stand up for yourself and when to sacrifice your dreams. It shows – in truly resonate ways – how life’s most important choices are often its most confusing, because they’re not choices between good and bad. They’re choices that force two loves to compete against each other, in a life where two goods can’t co-exist.

Already a young actress beyond her years, Saoirse Ronan fulfills her promise in the first full-fledged adult role of her career. Raw but never overplayed, her emotions are always about to burst even when Ronan’s at her most fragile or contained. From love’s leap-of-faith, to the poignant heartbreak of reading letters from a sister an ocean away, through the climatic second hour in which Eilias must resolve the ocean-wide gulf in her life, Ronan delivers a powerfully wrought performance.

Buoyed by a strong ensemble and exquisite period detail awash in pastels, this is a sweeping cinematic portrait in the best classical tradition, and announces John Crowley as a director of uncharacteristically subtle yet effective craft. His astute use of film language not only tells an effective story; he frames each moment in such perceptive ways, not merely capturing performances but amplifying them.

Bring the tissues. They’ll be needed, early and often. There’s a lot of humor, too, along with tender moments of grace.  Brooklyn fills your heart and then breaks it, but in the end leaves it stronger.

The Oscar Buzz has begun…for Sylvester Stallone (AWARDS 2015)

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I was wondering if this was going to happen. The fact that it’s even possible – with the 7th turn as such an iconic character, no less – is amazing, but with the filmmaking pedigree of director Ryan Coogler, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Sylvester Stallone has become an early Oscar front-runner for the first time in 40 years, with the same role that made him a contender 40 years ago.

Creed, the Rocky franchise spinoff that follows Apollo Creed’s son Adonis on his journey toward a boxing title, has Stallone’s Balboa taking a supporting role – outside the ring rather than in it – as the young Creed’s mentor. Star Michael B. Jordan and director Coogler previously collaborated on the gritty, powerful, and universally-acclaimed drama Fruitvale Station, and now they may return this saga from its bloated Hollywood glitz to possible Awards gold (the original Rocky won Best Picture in 1976), although hints of that potential were there in the tender, stripped-down coda Rocky Balboa nearly ten years ago.

Still, for as much as Coogler and and Jordan were expected to elevate the material to its original nuance and depth, legitimate Oscar buzz was not an industry expectation, perhaps most especially for Stallone who seemed to have drained every last drop out of the character, even as an old washed-up man in the franchise’s 6th and final entry. And yet, as Variety’s Awards Editor Kristopher Tapley writes in his piece “Sylvester Stallone Might Have Just KO’d the Supporting Actor Oscar Competition”, Stallone paints “a complex portrait, one that feeds the journey of the film’s main character rather than steal his spotlight.” And as Variety critic Andrew Barker put it in his official review, “Without straining for pathos, using his battered body as an asset but never as a prop, the actor finds continually surprising, understated notes of tenderness and regret.”

When the first Rocky debuted, critics were actually comparing Stallone to a young Marlon Brando. It was a little hard not to given some surface similarities between Rocky and On The Waterfront (which was barely over 20 years old at the time). Stallone’s career went on a decidedly different path, to be sure, but if this hype is real then that career may end where it began, with a surprising – and substantial – left hook that not even Stallone himself saw coming.

Creed opens nationwide on Wednesday November 25, 2015.

HOME ALONE at 25

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A live-action kids movie is never supposed to be a blockbuster. But Home Alone was. And 25 years later, it’s still very easy to see why.

Home Alone wasn’t just big. It was huge. In the holiday season of 1990, when it opened on November 16 to a 3-day $17 million haul (enough for #1 that weekend), no one could’ve predicted that it would go on to be an absolute cultural phenomenon. But it did. By the time it was done, Home Alone grossed $286 million dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $565 million. In today’s movie climate, that’s a stratosphere reserved for only the elite comic book movies and franchise tentpoles. But at the time, it was enough to rank Home Alone as the #3 Movie of All-Time (behind only E.T. and Star Wars). Or, in 2015 terms, that’s the equivalent of Jurassic World.

Even so, just because a movie plays big in its time doesn’t necessarily mean it will hold up over time. But Home Alone has. Its popularity endures. It’s achieved a Christmas Classic status alongside the most beloved holiday movies. I can’t sagely speak for an entire nation as to why, but these are the 5 things that I still respond to – and always will. Its strengths are hardly unique or special, cinematically speaking, but it’s worthwhile to consider them because, somehow, they all came together in a unique and special way 25 years ago.

  1. The Right Script. The screenplay by John Hughes isn’t his most original, nor does it fit the 80s Teen Movie template that made him a Gen X legend, yet Home Alone is still quintessential John Hughes. What is that, exactly? Well, it’s a fairly recognizable formula that Hughes somehow makes distinctly his own. His plots never strayed too far from the norm, but he saw the familiar in a very singular way. Other people made similar movies, but not with his voice. Comedy that ranged from dry to broad, at times bizarre, and in the end always sincerely sentimental. He knew how to express what everyone felt. That was every John Hughes movie, and in Home Alone his voice elevated standard kid-movie fare to something that resonated across all age demographics.
  2. The Right Director. Only the third directing credit to his name (before going on to launch the Harry Potter franchise), Chris Columbus was a protégé of Steven Spielberg. As a scriptwriter, he wrote the most successful Amblin Entertainment movies of the 80s (aka the ones Spielberg produced but didn’t direct), notably Gremlins and The Goonies. We see the Spielberg touch in Home Alone, too, and we hear it in the John Williams score. Like Spielberg, Columbus was able to transcend a conventional suburbia setting to something bigger than itself (in the same way another Spielberg protégé – Robert Zemeckis – did five years prior with Back To The Future). But at the core, Columbus – like Spielberg at his best – kept the sentiment rooted and grounded, not schmaltzy or cheesy. It was unabashed but it rang true. And that’s the perfect tone to strike, especially for a holiday movie.
  3. The Right KidMacaulay Culkin may be a real-life disaster now, but he was perfect then – especially for what John Hughes was going for. Culkin worked so well in Hughes’ Uncle Buck that Hughes tailored Home Alone specifically for him. Culkin wasn’t the most natural or convincing child actor we’ve ever seen, but his cute, oddly direct delivery was exactly right for this, by Hughes’ intentional design.
  4. The Right Goons. In 1990, Daniel Stern was largely known by his voice, not his face, narrating every episode of The Wonder Years as the adult Kevin Arnold. But Joe Pesci was at a career peak. Home Alone opened just two months after Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which went on to earn Pesci an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Here, Pesci adjusted his mafia persona for a family movie – free of profanity and played for laughs – in a way that amazingly didn’t feel neutered or watered-down. And together, Pesci and Stern were the perfect bungling duo, right down to the stark height differential, as they committed themselves (and their bodies) fully to the bone-breaking pratfall style of the old Warner Bros cartoons. And yes, the “frick-n-frack” child-safe non-profanity “swearing” only added to the humor.
  5. The Right Emotion. This is what makes Home Alone endure. Sure, the plot construction is inventive and the final act earns huge laughs, but it’s the emotional through-line that actually raises the dramatic stakes. As kids have fun with the antics (not to mention the fantasy of being home alone), adults are drawn in by Kate, the distraught mother. We empathize with her maternal struggle, her guilt and worry, and her unrelenting determination to fight through every impossibility in order to fly back from France and get back to her son. Our concern isn’t really for Kevin; it emerges from the mother’s journey, We’re emotionally invested in her, and her tenacity to get a “yes” when everyone’s giving her a “no”. She will not give up. Catherine O’Hara embodies it all with strength and vulnerability, and she’s the one who ends up carrying the movie. Then, along with her, there’s Old Man Marley next door. Played early on as a scary boogie man for the lonely Kevin to fear, his subplot evolves into to a powerfully felt story of a broken family, and a grandfather whose own anger and fear has led to regret. From his tender church confession to Kevin, to the final scene payoff, Marley’s arc never fails to make me a blubbering puddle in the best way. It strikes a sentimental chord, but deeply, and even now I can’t help but get choked up thinking about it. I enjoy everything about Home Alone, but it’s these emotional layers that keep delivering the biggest re-watching rewards.

There are, of course, other popular elements I failed to include, most notably the extended (and uncredited) John Candy cameo. His polka bandleader (who helps Kate get back to Kevin) was formed largely by improve, and Hughes asked Candy to use his character from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles – another Hughes holiday film – as inspiration. But from that, to the perfect holiday spirit it captures, to the nostalgic charm of how this story could never actually happen today due to advances in technology, Home Alone has not only become a holiday classic but a culture heirloom. Like the greats before it, we’ll be passing it on from generation to generation – for another 25 years and more.