What do you get when you cross a Vegas lounge singer with a rosary? An answer is at least attempted in Emile Ardolino’s Sister Act (1992); a quaintly undernourished comedy caper scripted by Joseph Howard. If ever a movie was a one hit wonder, Sister Act is it. The trick and wonderment of the exercise is that it seems to work, at least on a purely escapist level; its superficial ‘fish out of water’ set up decorously over plastered in gangsters and nuns. Don’t get me wrong. I think this film is fun, but in a moronic way at best. The calibre of its humour can be distilled into the presence of Whoopi Goldberg. Without her, there aren’t any laughs. It’s therefore saying a lot that Goldberg acquits herself quite nicely of the role of Dolores Van Cartier, a second rate casino chanteuse on the run from her mobster boyfriend, Vince LaRocca (Harvey Keitel).
Our story begins predictably in a lounge at the Nevada Club where Delores is entertaining a few drunkards with her act. Afterward, she seriously contemplates giving up ‘the life,’ particularly since Vince has promised her that he will eventually leave his trophy wife, Connie (Toni Kalem) to be with her. Vince gives Dolores one of Connie’s fur coats, a move that infuriates Delores. In fact, she’s all set to give the coat back when she walks in on Vince and his henchmen, Joey (Robert Miranda) and Willy (Richard Portnow) icing his croupier (David Boyce) whom Vince suspects has been stealing from him.
Shell shocked, Dolores lies to Vince that she only came to thank him for his gift; then quickly hightails to the local police station to confess that she has just witnessed a murder. Lt. Eddie Souther (Bill Nunn) informs Delores of Vince’s ties to organized crime. Convinced that she knew nothing of their investigation, Eddie puts Delores in the witness protection program, posing as a nun inside St. Katherine’s, a rundown Roman Catholic parish in San Francisco, until a trial date can be set for Vince.
The convent’s Reverend Mother (Maggie Smith) is reluctant to comply until she learns that a considerable stipend will be paid for the ailing church run by Monseigneur O’Hara (Joseph Maher). Rechristened Sister Mary Clarence, in order to conceal her true identity from the other nuns and thus make her camouflage complete, Dolores struggles to assimilate into convent life. Her dismay is softened by the friendships she makes along the way, with curmudgeonly Sister Mary Lazarus (Mary Wickes), introvert Sister Mary Roberts (Wendy Makkena) and overly optimistic Sister Mary Patrick (Kathy Najimy).
One night, after she is certain the others have gone to bed, Dolores sneaks out to a seedy bar across the street for a little R&R. She is tailed by the other three nuns who believe she has gone there to administer to the poor. Averting a near brawl while removing the sisters from harm’s way, this foursome is ambushed by Reverend Mother who decides then and there that Dolores will join the choir. In short order Dolores reforms the pathetic choir and becomes its new director. Although their debut performance of ‘Hail Holy Queen’ at Sunday mass is a resounding success – drawing parishioners in from the street – its rock and roll styling is an affront to Mother Superior’s ears.
Monseigneur O’Hara intervenes, praising the choir and Dolores who, seizing upon the opportunity, pretends it was Mother Superior’s all along. Dolores also lies to the rest of the nuns, telling them that Mother Superior has finally decided to allow them to go out and administer to the poor in their community, something she has been exceedingly apprehensive to do. Unable to contradict Dolores without exposing the truth Reverend Mother goes along with Delores, but quietly writes the diocese to be relocated as soon as possible.
In the meantime, Vince sees Delores on television. Having put two and two together, he sends Willy and Joey to take care of her. Unfortunately, the two stooges cannot help themselves. Suspecting that Dolores has perhaps become a nun since she left Vince, both Joey and Willy fear they will go to hell if they kill her. Instead, they kidnap Dolores back to Vegas. Reverend Mother informs the rest of the nuns of Dolores’ true identity. After some consternation, the nuns and Mother Superior fly to Vegas to rescue Dolores. In the resulting chase, Vince is captured and arrested by the police. The film ends with Dolores conducting the choir for a command performance given in Pope John Paul II’s honour.
Sister Act is silly beyond stupid. Its trite plot is ably fleshed out by some stellar performances, particularly Mary Wickes and Maggie Smith. These are beloved performers we’ve come to respect from their work elsewhere. You really can’t put a price on that cache. Harvey Keitel is believable as the Mafia thug. But Bill Nunn offers a fairly diluted performance as the Lt. who sort of likes Delores…but maybe not. The screenplay and Nunn’s interpretation of his role are never quite sure – hence, neither are we. For all this dumb show, the film belongs to Whoopi Goldberg who tackles it as a pseudo-extension of her stand-up comedy. She’s raucous when she needs to be and does the ‘who me?’ double take exceedingly well. Goldberg’s own personality goes a long way in selling us on her character. And the film is blessed that she is such a strong and dynamic presence on the screen.
Undoubtedly, more people liked – or even loved – Sister Act than not. Despite some severe lambasting from the critics, the film did solid box office, ensuring that a sequel would eventually follow. One year later, came Bill Duke’s Sister Act II: Back in the Habit (1993); a film so thoroughly misguided and rushed out the gate, simply to capitalize on the franchise, that it’s barely worth mentioning in review except to say that its script by James Orr, Jim Cruickshank and Judi Ann Mason makes the original Sister Act look like Lawrence of Arabia.
On this outing Sisters Mary Lazarus, Mary Roberts and Mary Patrick encourage Delores to give up her lucrative Las Vegas nightclub act to become a lowly music teacher at St. Francis – a once proud preparatory school fallen on hard times. The school’s administrator, Mr. Crisp (James Colburn) is attempting to hasten the school’s foreclosure. But Reverend Mother has snuck Delores in under the radar as Sister Mary Clarence once again. Given the overwhelming popularity and notoriety Delores brought to the arch diocese in the first film it’s a wonder Crisp and the school’s principal Father Maurice (Barnard Hughes) don’t know who she is.
This time around we’re asked to invest ourselves in a ‘To Sir With Love’/‘Lean On Me’ meets ‘Fame’ rescue mission scenario over some unruly inner city kids. Dolores attempts to reform her students with some tough love, then by organizing everyone into a choir that will compete at the state level. No kidding – they win the competition and save the school from foreclosure. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Bolstering the pop diva catalogue is singer Lauryn Hill, miscast as angst ridden teenager, Rita Louise Watson whose mother, Florence (Sheryl Lee Ralph) won’t allow her to partake in the choir (because singing is a waste of time) but predictably is proud of her daughter when she disobeys her to compete. Ho-hum. Bad writing. Terrible movie.
Buena Vista Home Video has decided to make the Sister Act franchise available, squeezing both movies onto a single Blu-ray along with some extra features. A while back film restoration expert Robert A. Harris pointed out that just because Blu-ray discs afford the opportunity for greater compression is no reason to strain the format by jam-packing multiple movies – or super long single ones – onto one disc, because compression ultimately suffers. Unfortunately, no one at Disney seems to have gotten this memo. Sister Act and Sister Act II share the same side of a single disc the same way Disney’s earlier release of both Father of the Bride movies came to hi-def. While Sister Act doesn’t appear any worse for this oversight, Sister Act II looks decidedly weaker on almost every level. Good news first.
Sister Act – the original movie – is a head and shoulders improvement over the old non-anamorphic DVD we’ve been suffering through since 1997. Colors pop. Fine detail abounds. Contrast levels are bang on. Film grain is naturally reproduced. In short, this is a very snappy 1080p visual presentation that will surely not disappoint. Can’t say the same for the sequel. The transfer on Sister Act II: Back in the Habit is the antithesis of part one. Colors are muted and dull. Fine details are weak at best, as are contrast levels. Grain even looks digitized in spots for a very gritty, and thoroughly unappealing, visual texture. If you’re a fan of Part II you won’t be amused.
The audio on both movies is 5.1 DTS but here too there are discrepancies worth noting. I think the lion’s share of compression has gone to the original movie – and rightly so - because the audio really kicked my speakers during the sparse musical sequences. By direct comparison, Part II’s musical sequences seemed less vibrant, with a weaker bass. Even dialogue in Part II sounded less crisp. I don’t think I’m imagining this.
Extras include a brief featurettes and Lady Soul’s ‘If My Sister’s In Trouble’ – a music video released at the time of the original Sister Act as a curious tie in, since the song itself never appeared in the finished movie. Bottom line: If you’re a fan of the first movie then this disc comes recommended. Disney’s done a fine job remastering the original film in hi-def. The sequel doesn’t live up to expectations – either as a movie or Blu-ray transfer. Purchase accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Sister Act 3
Sister Act II 0
Sister Act 4
Sister Act II 2