Film Reviewing Terms Explained
Film Reviewing Terms Explained
Kevin Maynard (Film Critic and Entertainment Writer, Special to USA Today, Variety) gives expert video advice on: What is an "auteur"?; What does "A-list" mean?; What is "back story"? and more...
What is "plot"?
Plot is the story of the movie. It's what happens. It's the dramatic action of the film.
What is "B-story"?
A B-story is a developing subplot that's not as important as the "A-story", which is the main story of the plot. But, it still will have a payoff, and will have parallels -- if the movie's good -- with the A-story. It will have a payoff in a smaller way.
What is "genre"?
Genre is a category of film. There are different genres of movies and a genre is what distinguishes the type of movie that you're seeing. Sometimes movies blend genres, but belong to one of the big ones, such as comedies, dramas, musicals, horror movies, action movies, westerns, suspense thrillers. Documentary is also a genre. These are categories and subcategories of types of films.
What is an "auteur"?
Auteur is literally the French word for "author." In filmic terms, an auteur is a director with a considerable body of work, a body of work that's unique. They have a certain sensibility. Spike Lee could be seen as an auteur. John Ford is most definitely an auteur. Uwe Boll, who did some video game adaptations, is not an auteur. An auteur is a director with a significant and lasting contribution to cinema.
What is an "act"?
An act is a main division within the plot. Most movies have a three act structure, which is a beginning, a middle and an end.
What does "boffo" mean?
Boffo means big, it's expected to do big, big box office. That's boffo. I think it's just some nice alliteration.
What does "A-list" mean?
"A list" means that you are getting the top talent in the field for the movie. If a movie has an A-list cast, it's the creme de la creme. If Meryl Streep is in a movie, it's an A-list movie.
What is a "camera angle"?
The angle is the perspective from which the camera depicts its subjects. Sometimes you'll use a low angle to signify tension, or some sort of foreboding sense of doom. The camera angle can really inject a lot of personality into a film, depending on where you place it.
What is a "prestige" or "art house" film?
An art house movie is a movie that's not being released by a studio, although sometimes it's being released by one of the sort of, studio indies. The lines are kind of blurred. Paramount has Paramount Vantage, Fox has Fox Searchlight, Sony has Sony Pictures Classics. Those little niche specialty film divisions within the studio release art house movies in theaters. But also, sometimes movies out of distribution if they can get a theater is an art house movie, if they can be seen at an art house. It's anything that's not your average blockbuster.
What is "back story"?
A back story is anything that happened prior to where we see our characters in the movie. Maybe it's things that we find out about later on, or we're getting a sense of something. In the movie "Little Children" we start with Kate Winslet in a very unhappy marriage to a guy who'd rather look at porn on the internet than spend time with his wife, and right away we get a sense the she is unsatisfied in her marriage even though we didn't see the union take place, we didn't see the relationship deteriorate.
What is "blocking" in a film?
Blocking is literally where the actors are and how the actors are situated. It includes how they move through the frame and how the action is staged within a film. This is blocking.
What is "CGI"?
"CGI' is Computer Generated Imagery. It's an amazing process and an amazing technique that makes some of our summer blockbusters so incredibly exciting to watch. It's also some times something that is criticized, that "There was too much CGI", "The action didn't look real". I think people thrill at seeing real stunts with real stuntmen and can tell when something looks fake or not and sometimes Computer Generated Imagery can take away some of the excitement there where used.
What is an "ensemble film"?
An ensemble film is a movie that doesn't focus on one protagonist. I think the ultimate example of an ensemble movie is like, "The Big Chill." All the characters have equal weight. It's a group of actors and they're a community of ex-college radicals who gather together for a weekend, and all the characters and their storylines have equal weight. That's an ensemble movie.
What is an "exploitation film"?
An exploitation film is largely a B movie. It's a movie that usually has some kind of a point to make. It's usually addressing social injustice or something, but it's also a movie that has a kind of a scandalous element. It has a lot of sex; it has a lot of violence; it covers taboo subjects. It can be a little gratuitous. But a good exploitation movie is a movie that has something else on its mind. It brings you in because it's a little salacious, it's a little more edgy than other movies, but it has an undercurrent. It's reflecting what's going on at the time.
What is a "McGuffin"?
A McGuffin is a term that originated with Hitchcock movies. Its a mysteract, something that throws you off. Its a plot element that takes you and leads you down a path, and then screws you over.
What is a "protagonist"?
A protagonist is the main character of your movie. Perfect example is in "Meet John Doe", it's about John Doe. It's about an everyman and that's Gary Cooper. A protagonist is the main character of the movie.
What is a "star vehicle"?
A Star Vehicle is a movie that is exploiting someone's charms. You know, what's a good example? Reese Whitherspoon is a big box office star, she's made a lot of movies but "Walk The Line" is not a star vehicle, it's a bio pic about Johnny Cash. "Legally Blonde" and "Sweet Home Alabama” were star vehicles. They were movies designed to showcase someone's appeal. And they' re called star vehicles because they really reflect someone's movie star quality, as opposed to maybe their acting ability. Julia Roberts has made a lot of star vehicles, Sandra Bullock has made a lot of star vehicles, Adam Sandler has made star vehicles. They're a movie where a known entity is getting into a situation that's probably pretty predictable but you're going to see it anyway based on how charming you find that star.
What is a "spoiler"?
A spoiler is sort of like reading online who Kaizer Soze is, you know before you've seen the movie. What happens is a lot of times with movies these days is the scripts are printed in red. Or, actors, you know, only get their parts of the script. Movies are under such hush hush secrecy. I mean we have film piracy now and we also have the internet. And people are always looking to kind of find out how a movie's going to turn out or find out the surprise plot elements ahead of time. And studios are doing everything they can to lock those down. So a spoiler is when that word gets out.
What is a "stock character"?
A stock character is a character type. It's the down-on-his-luck gunslinger, the embittered alchoholic private eye. It's the naive small-town girl. It's a cliched type of character you'll see in a lot of movies.
What is a "tour de force"?
A tour de force is just a fancy term for saying, you know, a total achievement. Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta in "Raging Bull" is a tour de force. It's a singular performance, it could also be a singular moment in a director's career, could be their tour de force. I would say Spike Lee's tour de force would probably be "Do the Right Thing." So it's a person's greatest achievement, at least thus far in their career.
What is "buzz"?
Buzz is any kind of advance word on a movie. You know, you get some buzz. You have good buzz, you've got bad buzz. You know, sometimes a movie has good buzz and sometimes a movie doesn't, and it can affect the movie. There are some times when a movie has bad buzz and it does remarkably well. A case in point is Titanic. It won the Oscar for best picture and was a huge, huge movie. There are plenty of people that found it corny or whatever, but you get bad buzz at times because it was so expensive. At the time, James Cameron was taking a huge risk by casting two people who weren't that big, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. The movie had really bad buzz. It was plagued with production problems and then it became a huge thing.