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2 Movies Set A Century Ago Capture The Coming Of Modern Age


Two new movies set more than a century ago depict a time when the world was just becoming modern. "The Sisters Brothers" is about a Wild West on the verge of being tamed. The biopic "Colette" is about a French novelist who refused to be tamed. And critic Bob Mondello says both films have a lot to offer if you tame your expectations.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Charlie Sisters is violent. Eli Sisters is sensitive. But they're both paid assassins, so you do not want to cross them.


JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Charlie Sisters) This is the Sisters brothers. You don't stand a chance.

MONDELLO: Though this is a dark comedy, the brothers Sisters are introduced shooting men in the face at point-blank range and burning a barn that sends a horse on fire galloping into the night. That level of brutality is justified by a manhunt for, of all things, a chemist named Warm.


PHOENIX: (As Charlie Sisters) Warm has a formula. You pour it in the river. It lights up all the gold.

MONDELLO: Warm also has a formula for a non-capitalist utopia - not sure why he needs gold for that. John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix are the bickering brothers.


JOHN C REILLY: (As Eli Sisters) We could open a store together.

PHOENIX: (As Charlie Sisters) A store? This is nonsense.

MONDELLO: Riz Ahmed's the hapless chemist they're chasing and Jake Gyllenhaal a private eye who's along for what becomes an increasingly eccentric ride. It's a Wild West where there's a brothel madam who's a man, a spider whose bite can make your face look like a cantaloupe and plenty of other reasons for Eli to want out.


REILLY: (As Eli Sisters) We have enough money to stop for good.

PHOENIX: (As Charlie Sisters) Stop what?

REILLY: (As Eli Sisters) Killing people.

PHOENIX: (As Charlie Sisters, laughter) Yeah right.

MONDELLO: Director Jacques Audiard, a newcomer to Westerns, is a visual guy who cares more about images than plot. So like the novel it's based on, "The Sisters Brothers" drifts towards its conclusion while Audiard explores things that have not often been explored in a big-screen Western - Eli's first encounter with a toothbrush, for instance. It comes with tooth powder and instructions that, judging from the way Eli brushes, are less than entirely clear. "The Sisters Brothers" also get quite excited the first time they come across a flush toilet. But then who wouldn't?

It's light bulbs that amaze the title character in "Colette" when she leaves the wisteria vines of her parents' estate for the man-centric Paris of 1892. Keira Knightley plays Colette as a carefree country girl initially enjoying her marriage to a blowhard named Willy, who is not so much a writer as a self-styled literary entrepreneur with a stable of unknowns churning out work for which he takes credit.


DOMINIC WEST: (As Willy) I lend them name, my reputation. I take all the risk, and there's still no money. We need more output.

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: (As Colette) Well, you could get another writer.

WEST: (As Willy) And pay them with what? I'm not even making a thousand this month.

MONDELLO: Then he realizes...


WEST: (As Willy) You could write.

KNIGHTLEY: (As Colette) What?

WEST: (As Willy) Those stories you told me of Saint-Sever last year.

KNIGHTLEY: (As Colette) My school stories.

WEST: (As Willy) Yes, that could be Willy's next novel.

MONDELLO: She looks skeptical.


WEST: (As Willy) Try it anyway. Try it now. Start immediately. Aim for four hours at a time. The wolves are at the door.

MONDELLO: Dominic West's a supremely full-of-himself Willy pushing Collette to tart up her roman a clef Claudine at school and never letting on that it's anything but his own work even to his publisher.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I believe Willy based Claudine in part on your school days.

KNIGHTLEY: (As Colette) Yes, I think I had a little something to contribute.

MONDELLO: That little comment earns Collette a dressing down on their ride home.


WEST: (As Willy) Finally we have a success, and then you imply that I'm not the true author of it.

KNIGHTLEY: (As Colette) No, I didn't.

WEST: (As Willy) People love to talk. I understand the mentality here; you don't.

KNIGHTLEY: (As Colette) Well, I understand it well enough to write a book that's the toast of Paris.

MONDELLO: Keira Knightley's Colette bristles, fumes and is soon bedding as many women as her husband. The script has more modern-day grandstanding about empowerment than it should. We get that point without all the pointing. But director Wash Westmoreland shoots through faceted glass and chandelier crystals and makes it look as if Collette's embroidery alone cost as much as a Merchant Ivory movie. That at least is a nice match for the real Collette's sensual writing. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.