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MOVIE REVIEW : Half-Truths and Dares

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Say what you like about Madonna--and most people do--she is nobody’s fool. And if all the huffing and puffing about “Truth or Dare,” the cinema verite documentary of her 1990 Blonde Ambition world tour proves nothing else, it shows her to be a mistress of media control of awesome abilities. Like old-time burlesque queens on the order of Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee, women who gave the illusion of taking it all off when in reality they were removing precious little, Madonna has masterminded a putative show-and-tell-all showcase that in reality is not very revealing at all.

What, you say, not very revealing? What about all that stuff everybody’s talking about? What about Madonna gagging herself without a spoon after she meets Kevin Costner? What about her amusing herself on a very large bed with her troupe of male dancers? What about her performing oral sex on a presumably very grateful bottle of mineral water? Doesn’t this count for revealing? For most people, yes, but for Madonna it’s another story.

Directed by 26-year-old Alek Keshishian, “Truth or Dare” (at selected theaters) is first of all part of a documentary tradition, sometimes known as Direct Cinema, that is older than he is. Believing that reality could be captured if subjects allowed unlimited access and filmmakers were discreet, directors such as D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers and Richard Leacock (whose son Robert is one of the directors of photography on “Truth or Dare”) turned themselves into flies on the wall in the early 1960s, observing a variety of human life but with a special fondness (as “Monterey Pop,” “Don’t Look Back” and “Gimme Shelter” demonstrate) for the ever-animated rock scene.

As with all documentaries, these films were only as compelling as their subjects, and with Madonna, not for nothing the idol of millions, Keshishian hit the jackpot. Not only did she give him unlimited access, allowing more than 250 hours of filming, but it also seems to be true that, as woebegone beau Warren Beatty complains during a brief but much-put-upon appearance: “She doesn’t want to live off camera, much less talk.”

More than this, Madonna comes across on screen--as those who remember her debut in “Desperately Seeking Susan” will have no trouble believing--as extremely likable and surprisingly good-humored. Yes, she is a tough customer when she has to be, but she is notably self-aware, not to mention self-possessed, bolstered by both a sharp, wicked sense of fun and a genuine sweetness when it comes to the people she cares about. She is, in short, a treat to hang out with, and that quality, combined with generous dollops of her tongue-in-cheek stage act, makes “Truth or Dare” (rated R for sexual language and situations) much more amusing much more often than you might expect.

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And, though they are not of the National Enquirer variety, certain scenes--for instance, Madonna compulsively cleaning up her hotel suite after a party or leading her guys in pre-concert prayer meetings, acting for all the world like the high school football coach you never had--do show sides of the star that we might not have expected existed.

But while Madonna’s lack of obvious inhibitions is a cinema verite director’s dream, as “Truth or Dare” overextends itself to its nearly two-hour length, some of the flaws it shares with the rest of the genre also come into view.

For one thing, several of the scenes, for instance Madonna’s visit to her mother’s grave and a reunion with a youthful friend from Miss M’s wild-and-crazy teen years, look to have been stage-managed specifically for the camera crew. For another, even though no one, not even the obviously tormented Beatty, was filmed without consent, some sequences seem to exploit members of her entourage in a way that they do not appear to be enjoying.

Finally, with the exception of a perfunctory voice-over by Madonna that has a flat Dear Diary feel to it, there is no direct interviewing of the film’s star, and almost no analytical comments about her by anyone else in the entire 118 minutes. What we get instead are all those outrageous, extremely well-publicized scenes. Yes, they make for fascinating viewing, but far from exposing a previously unseen Madonna, they are precisely the sorts of things that her fans, who love her for doing with style and panache what they themselves don’t even dare think about, have not only come to expect from her but also, more importantly, will eat up like candy.

By being so provocatively candid about what for her is small stuff, Madonna understands that the reality of the film, the fact that she has in truth revealed very little of herself, really won’t be noticed. What we get is exactly what she wants us to see, nothing more, and, certainly nothing less.

‘Truth or Dare’

A Miramax Films release. Director Alek Keshishian. Producers Jay Roewe, Tim Clawson. Supervising producers Sigurjon Sighvatsson, Steve Golin. Executive producer Madonna. Director of photography, documentary Robert Leacock. Director of photography, concert Toby Phillips. Editor Barry Alexander Brown. Musical sequences editor John Murray. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (strong sexual dialogue and situations).


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