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<i>Da Vinci Code</i> scores low on reviews

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Thursday, May 18, 2006
Cannes (Reuters): Most critics panned The Da Vinci Code today ahead of the world premiere of the year's most eagerly awaited movie. Opening the annual Cannes film festival, Ron Howard's adaptation of the Dan Brown bestseller was described variously as ''grim'', ''unwieldy'' and ''plodding'', though one reviewer bucked the trend and said '' You'll Louvre It!'' Even before its general release on May 18 and 19, the movie starring Tom Hanks generated controversy as Christians around the world called for it to be banned.

The novel has enraged religious groups because one of its characters argues that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene and had a child by her, and that elements within the Catholic Church resorted to murder to hide the truth. In Thailand on Wednesday, a police-run censorship board overturned an earlier decision to cut the last 10 minutes of the film, but insisted the distributor add disclaimers stating it was fiction. In Ireland, volunteers plan to distribute free copies of a special edition of The Irish Catholic newspaper outside cinemas showing The Da Vinci Code over the weekend.

The Vatican has called for a boycott of the picture, and the Indian government said it would show the movie to Christian groups before clearing it for release. In the mainly Catholic Philippines the censors have given it and'adult only'' rating. Howard and Hanks defended the film at a news conference, saying it was a piece of fiction. British actor Alfred Molina, who plays a Machiavellian bishop in the movie, blamed the media for creating controversy where there was little or none.

At a screening late on Tuesday in Cannes, members of the audience laughed at the thriller's pivotal moment, and the end of the 125 million dollars picture was greeted with stony silence. Trade publication Variety had barely a nice word to say. ''A pulpy page-turner in its original incarnation as a huge international bestseller has become a stodgy, grim thing in the exceedingly literal-minded film version of The Da Vinci Code,'' wrote Todd McCarthy. Lee Marshall of Screen International agreed. ''I haven't read the book, but I just thought there was a ridiculous amount of exposition,'' he said. ''I thought it was plodding and there was a complete lack of chemistry between Audrey Tautou and Tom Hanks.''

Lou Lumenick of the New York Post was far more upbeat: ''Ron Howard's splendid The Da Vinci Code is the Holy Grail of summer blockbusters: a crackling, fast-moving thriller that's every bit as brainy and irresistible as Dan Brown's controversial bestseller.'' Critics say the controversy surrounding the film, and the fact that more than 40 million people have bought the book, will ensure a strong box office performance, but they believe word-of-mouth is likely to hit sales later on.

The movie industry will be watching The Da Vinci Code particularly closely after the first two summer blockbusters-''Mission: Impossible III'' and ''Poseidon''-stumbled. Hanks defended the film against its critics. ''This is not a documentary. This is not something that is pulled up and says 'These are the facts and this is exactly what happened.''' Howard had some advice for those who objected to the story. ''There's no question that the film is likely to be upsetting to some people. My advice is ... to not go and see the movie if you think you're going to be upset.'' Ian McKellen, an openly gay actor who plays Leigh Teabing in The Da Vinci Code, tried to make light of the controversy. ''I'm very happy to believe that Jesus was married,'' he said. ''I know the Catholic Church has problems with gay people and I thought this would be absolute proof that Jesus was not gay.'' The Da Vinci Code premiere late on Wednesday kicks off 12 hectic days of screenings, interviews, photocalls and partying in Cannes, the world's biggest film festival.

Despite more bad reviews than good ones, the international public are waiting to feast their eyes on the movie. First reviews for The Da Vinci Code may be mostly scathing but box office experts say they expect the Mona Lisa to keep smiling all the way to the bank this weekend. The experts say the religious-themed thriller can expect to haul in between $50 million and $80 million, when it opens domestically on Friday -- more than enough to compensate for the laughter, jeers and sneers it received when shown to critics at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival on Tuesday. Print reviews of the movie version of the world's biggest-selling novel were also less than kind.

Daily Variety critic Todd McCarthy said, ''Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldman have drained all the fun out of the melodrama, leaving ... an oppressive talky film that is as close to dull as one could imagine with such provocative material.'' The Hollywood Reporter's critic, Kirk Honeycutt, complained the film ''never rises to the level of a guilty pleasure. Too much guilt. Not enough pleasure.'' In early reviews, only Lou Lumenick of the New York Post cheered, The Da Vinci Code is the Holy Grail of summer blockbusters: a crackling, fast-moving thriller that's every bit as brainy and irresistible as Dan Brown's controversial bestseller.'' Movie ticketing service Fandango said the film was accounting for 78 percent of all the agency's advance sales, and 88 percent of those buying tickets said they had read the book, which has sold more than 40 million copies.

The service also reported that 74 percent of those buying tickets said their religious beliefs did not affect their decision. The book has come under criticism from religious groups who object to its premise that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and had a child together. By comparison, advance ticket purchases for DreamWorks Animation Studio's ''Over the Hedge'' also opening Friday, accounted for 4 percent of sales. Box office watcher Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Inc., said the bad reviews may help the box office, at least in the short term.

''It means people are talking about this movie, and you have to remember that there is often a disconnect between critics and audiences. What will really count for this film is word of mouth, and that will not make itself felt until the second or third weekend,'' he said. He said he would expect that the film would make about $50 million in its opening weekend. Chad Hartigan, box office analyst for Reel Source said he expected the film to do between $60 million and $80 million in its first weekend, helped in no small part by the public's awareness of the novel. ''Our office saw the film and thought it was great. The general public will be more forgiving than the mainstream critics,'' he said. MovieTickets.com said The Da Vinci Code was tracking very high in advance of its weekend opener and had 10 times more tickets sold than ''Mission: Impossible III'' during the same time in its sales cycle. The Tom Cruise action film, the first of the summer's big-budget movies, opened two weeks ago to a disappointing weekend gross of just under $48 million. Brandon Gray of Boxofficemojo.com said he thought The Da Vinci Code would gross about $70 million in its first three days. ''It has real audience interest and a real fan base,'' he said.

In another green signal for the films screening, representatives of the Catholic Church here decided not to press for a ban on the much-awaited and controversial movie slated for worldwide release tomorrow. So the movie will screen. The catholic Bishops, who watched the movie with Information and Broadcasting Minister P R Dasmunsi last night, held a meeting this morning following which they sent their response to the Minister in which they have asked for only a disclaimer telling the audience that the film was a total work of fiction.

''Though the storyline of the film is fundamentally unacceptable to Christians in India, we have not asked for a ban. And in case the Censor Board goes ahead with clearing the movie, it should carry a disclaimer about the fictitious nature of the story and the film should be given 'A' certificate'' Dr Donald HR De Souza of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India told UNI after the meeting. The Bishops in their response to the Minister have also pointed out some scenes which they would like the Censor Board to delete from the film.

The Censor Board will take into account the views of bishops before finally clearing the movie which is based on a novel. The book has enraged the Catholic groups as it suggests that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene and sired a child, and that some sections within the Catholic Church resorted to murder to hide the fact. The Information and Broadcasting Minister had yesterday said his Ministry would not interfere in the matter as final decision in such cases was always taken by the Censor Board. Mr Dasmunsi said in the case of films which have impact on religious, ethnic or any other social susceptibility, the government has clear guidelines which are followed by the Censor Board. So in the case of Da Vinci Code also, the Board will be guided by the specifications and the views of the Christian experts. The Board's decision is expected by this evening.

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