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Once Removed.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

JANUARY 12, 1998:  It's no mystery why screenwriters (and playwrights) like to isolate their characters. If you're trying to tell a story about one or two people, but you also have to acknowledge their boss, their landlord, their co-workers, their parking lot attendants, and the guy who works the register at the corner coffee shop...well, your narrative drive can get diluted. It's much easier to cut the extraneous people out altogether and plop your important characters down in some remote locale, away from the world.

The strategy can seem contrived, but when it's done well it can produce affecting hothouse drama. That's the case with Love! Valour! Compassion! (1997, R), which Terrence McNally adapted from his acclaimed play about eight gay men coming to terms with themselves and each other. It takes place over a sequence of summer weekends at the country home of Gregory (Stephen Bogardus), a successful but insecure choreographer. The film was marketed on the novelty appeal of seeing Seinfeld's Jason Alexander as a high-spirited but AIDS-afflicted "old queen," but what's remarkable is how well Alexander meshes with the lesser-known Broadway actors who make up the rest of the cast. The movie can be preachy—sometimes it seems like a "State of the Gay Nation" address—but it's shot through with self-deprecatory humor and gentle nuance. Especially worth seeing for a great double performance by John Glover, who plays identical but polar opposite twins.

Love! Valour! Compassion! was inevitably described as "a gay Big Chill," but that self-conscious drama was hardly the first to make use of the isolated characters scenario. Shakespeare was there about 380 years earlier. Several of the Bard's plays revolve around pulling a group of disparate people into a remote locale and letting them work out their various romances and rivalries. One of the best is Much Ado About Nothing, which Kenneth Branagh adapted admirably for the screen in 1993. Branagh and then-wife Emma Thompson are sharp-tongued and funny as acerbic lovers tricked into wooing each other, and Keanu Reeves thankfully doesn't get enough screen time to capsize the movie.

Agatha Christie was another lover of the remote setting, and they don't get much more remote than the snowbound train in Murder on the Orient Express (1974). With an all-star cast (Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, and Ingrid Bergman, who won an Oscar for her supporting role), the film is well-orchestrated Hollywood fluff, and it sports one of Christie's more audacious twist endings.

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