There are stock phrases that film reviews have a habit of leaning on – but what do they really mean? Glad you asked.

In the old days of computer game magazines, the debate over games getting a certain score in its review was generally quite well spirited. If you disagreed with the review that had been printed? Well, to make your point you had to write into the letters page of the publication in question – imagine that! – and the reply was printed, with a cordial response advising you to work out which reviewers were closer to your taste, and make your mind up accordingly.

Now, of course, it’s all different. Movie critics are either on the payroll of DC Entertainment or Marvel, and aren’t allowed to like both. They like films that ‘real’ people didn’t. If they like a film with women in it where traditionally people may have expected to find men, they can expect the ritual kicking on Twitter. If you actually are a woman, then holy shit. The usual drill, really.


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It’s hard sometimes not to put your guard up a little, especially when you’re expressing a view on a movie that the hive mind has reached a different conclusion on. And so what I’ve noticed is that the lexicon of the film reviewer has expanded somewhat to bring in key ‘get out’ phrases. I’ve been here. When you’re in a tight spot, and you know others are getting a lot more out of a film than you are, the temptation to reach into the special bag of emergency words can be overwhelming.

Bottom line: there’s always been a collection of reviewers’ phrases that come with a bit of a double meaning. More recently, I can’t help but feel it’s expanded somewhere. Here’s, therefore, what’s hopefully a useful and well-intentioned guide to what a review might say, and what it might actually mean…

“I’m not giving away the plot, to try and avoid spoilers”

An easy way to get us started. This simply means that ‘I genuinely couldn’t explain what was going on if you paid me’. Which you sort of are.

“There’s plenty in here for fans”

This refers to a moment in a film where someone walks in, says something about a comic book that I didn’t get, but lots of other people laughed. As such, there’s clearly a reference here that it beyond me, but I’ve not got a Scooby what it is.

We’ll come to a variant of this shortly.

“It’s a film set to divide audiences”

I’ve used this. It’s a knowing shorthand to acknowledge that lots of other people will have a very different opinion to the film to me. Or, just as likely: I know I’m in from a kicking from fans of the movie in question, but I still don’t like it. Consider this sentence a flame suit in written form.

“High-octane entertainment”

It moved so fast I had no clue what on earth was going on.

“Laugh out loud funny”

At least three people tittered in the press screening I was at, and that’ll have to do.

“It’s a roller coaster ride”

Ah, this is a good back-covering one. A roller-coaster is as much a vomit-inducing vertical descent as it is a track going round a crap fairground. It means as a rule you just have to sit back and watch the thing, and not necessarily hope to understand it. See also: “it’s a thrill ride”.

“It’s the movie of the year”

Just a useful reminder this one that it’s actually not even Easter yet. Fairly safe to use it at this stage.

“Check your brain in at the door”

Ah! This is code for ‘The film is shit’.

Yet also, ‘I liked it, but it’s shit’.

But heck, I liked it. I’m scared to give it any more than three stars in case I look less highbrow. That kind of thing.

“It’s not up there with the director’s previous work”.

It’s crap. But I’m not slagging off a Scorsese film.

“Fun for all the family”

It’ll keep the kids quiet for a bit. For a parent of a youngster – back me up, other parents! – that very much counts as ‘fun’.

“Guilty pleasure”

I liked it, but I’m not supposed to like it, and thus I have to hide behind guilt. A frustrating phrase this one. As Graham Norton once wrote, “save your guilt for something that deserves it”.

“The latest film from visionary director [insert name]”


Now ‘visionary director’ has spilled over from marketing departments. Don’t be fooled into instantly thinking this is a good thing. It can be, but it’s a shorthand for ‘directors who make films that look very distinctively their own’.

By that nature, Tommy Wiseau is a visionary director. Do not mistake the phrase for an endorsement.

“It’s one for the fans”

A variant of one or two examples we’ve seen thus far. This pretty much means that I’m not a fan, and had no idea what was going on. If I say that out loud, social media will, er, ‘tell me off’.

“It’s like [name of film] on steroids”

It’s a rip off of [name of film], just more expensive.

“It’s not as clever as it thinks it is”

I mean, I know this is supposed to be a guide to what these phrases mean, but, er, what does this mean? The inanimate hard drive/spool of film is lacking in intelligence that it believed itself to have? Best I can offer is “it’s a bit thick”.

[Extensive ruining of plot]

Don’t know, but drives me mad as well if it helps.

[Posting of spoilers on social media for a film nobody else has had a chance to see yet because it’s not out]

I’m doing this because I work for a big enough outlet to not get banned from future press screenings. And also, because I’m a dick.

“Stay past the credits”

Because I had to. There’s a short scene of dubious merit, that’ll lead to you missing your bus/getting stuck in the car park.

“The film ruined my childhood”.

Instant shorthand for “I’m a prick”.

 “The greatest [insert name of genre] movie of all time”

It’s not the greatest [insert name of genre] movie of all time. Calm down.

“Go into this film knowing as little as possible”

And finally – for now – the modern-day giveaway. If you see this phrase written anywhere, then it means one thing: there’s a great big massive twist, that for added measure someone is likely to give away on Twitter three days before the film is out. It’s also a useful reminder to mute headlines on that ranty site for a bit, to be on the safe side.

Genuinely: treat this one as a massive clanging bell that something major is going to happen. At the very least, expect someone you’d not expect to die to die.

With added thanks to Ryan Lambie.

Feel free to add your own in the comments, and I’ll translate them as best I can!

Images: BigStock


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