Sister Act & Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit - 2 Movie Collection [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (1st October 2012).
The Film

Nostalgia is a tricky thing, particularly when it comes to “old” movies, TV shows, and heck, even video games. “Old”, by which I mean—not films that were produced in the Golden Age of Hollywood, or even before that, nor necessarily films that have a few decades between theatrical release and now—but a thing that has dated in your lifetime. Especially when that thing you seem to remember liking at the time, sort of has a mountain of evidence-in-hindsight to suggest it might not have been that good to begin with. When you’re younger, you like most of the movies you like because you haven’t seen many—and, at a certain age, you don’t really have taste anyway (it’s not exactly a discerning taste, at least). You enjoy what you enjoy based on limited experience, and limited exposure because of a more sheltered worldview. Years later, that thing you liked… as an adult, you might find it kind of awful, now that you have the experience, the exposure, the expanded view of the world, and hopefully, a sense of taste.

I say all this because “Sister Act”, a movie that was constantly in rotation on HBO during my childhood, was a film that I (and I know many others) really enjoyed that the time, and it turns 20 this year. In commemoration of the double-decade anniversary, the surprise hit-comedy—which, to the surprise of many, tallied more than $200 million in worldwide box office ticket totals upon release in 1992, to become one of the top-grossing films of that year—finally comes to Blu-ray in a two-movie collection, packaged with its decidedly lesser sequel “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” on a single Blu-ray disc.

It’s been (close to) a solid decade since I’d last seen the first “Sister Act” in its entirety, and it’s been even longer since the silly and unnecessary sequel graced my TV screen. Which is why, honestly, I was kind of afraid to watch the original when this double feature showed up on my doorstep for review. I had fond memories of the first movie—memories I wasn’t sure I could trust. Again, nostalgia is tricky. Curiously then, in revisiting the films so many years later, and for the first time in high definition, I find that my opinion of each really hasn’t changed at all. Clouded by a haze of happy thoughts though I may be, it seems my fondness for the first hasn’t lessened in the least. “Sister Act” is still a very funny comedy, totally suitable for Sunday afternoon time wasting, if not much else. It may not be the peak of filmmaking proficiency, but in my mind, director Emile Ardolino’s amusing musical comedy is still a pretty good movie all the same, and the characters (and actors playing those characters) are easily the reason why. Sadly, my dislike of the second entry is equally unchanging, at least in that I think Bill Duke’s “Back in the Habit” doesn’t hold a candle to the original (although I will admit, it too has some charm, mostly in its memorable musical moments).

Fueled by composer Marc Shaiman’s fun arrangements of R&B songs with a gospel twist (and vice-versa), the original “Sister Act” was made at what was probably star Whoopi Goldberg’s height of popularity. She was a series regular on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-1994), playing Guinan, the bartender—with a perpetually peculiarly hat seemingly always atop her head—of the Enterprise-D’s Ten Forward. She was also hot off of a supporting actor Oscar win for her part in the movie “Ghost” (1990). “Sister Act” was tailor-made for Whoopi, or more accurately tailored to her, as a star-vehicle that she, and everyone along for the ride, could ride all the way to the bank in. And she did. Originally, the film was written as a spec in the 1980's by screenwriter Paul Rudnick (using the nom de plume Joseph Howard in the final feature, after his original concept was bastardized for a new star) for Bette Middler. For various reasons, the Middler version of the story never came to be, and eventually the project was picked up by Goldberg and a group of producers at Touchstone, and was rewritten numerous times, by numerous writers (including notable female filmmakers Nancy Meyers and Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher), into the film we have today.

Whoopi plays Deloris Van Cartier, a Reno lounge singer, who, on the night she means to break it off with her married mobster boyfriend Vince LaRoca (Harvey Kietel), mistakenly walks into the scene of a murder at his hand. Realizing that Vince is… not a nice guy, Deloris plans to turn state’s witness against her former lover, but the Reno PD is overrun with corruption and the detective in charge of the LaRoca case (Bill Nunn) isn’t sure Deloris is safe in the city. He convinces the Reverend Mother (Maggie Smith) of a dilapidated San Franciscan abbey filled with downtrodden nuns to take the singer in, in exchange for a large donation to the church from the Biggest Little Police Department in the country. The disruptive and outspoken Deloris, rechristened Sister Mary Clarence upon her arrival, has trouble fitting into the strictly traditional convent. But, when she is put in charge of the abbey’s disheveled and out-of-tune choir, the singer whips the group into shape through more upbeat song and dance. Not just that, with the help of the three Sisters with whom she most closely bonds—Sister Mary Patrick (Kathy Najimy), Sister Mary Robert (Wendy Makkena) and Sister Mary Lazarus (Mary Wickles)—Deloris breaths new life into the surrounding inner-city, turning a dank and dirty rundown slum, covered in graffiti, into a bright and lively community once again. Of course, all is not happy-go-lucky: Vince wants Deloris dead, and sends his goons looking for her, culminating in a big chase in which a nun gets thrown out of a moving car, and the women get caught in literal crossfire at a casino.

By all reasonable forms of measure, “Sister Act” is a film that shouldn’t work. It’s premise is beyond absurd, the plot follows a predictable and plainly pedestrian path, and, from the viewpoint of 2012, almost everything, from the fashion to the use of a musical action montage at the narrative turning point, is comically dated, stuck in the awkwardness ugliness of the early 90's. The film borders on badness constantly. But it only borders it, and never crosses that very fine line. Perhaps the reason the film works—actually this is exactly the reason “Sister Act” works, and is able to stay focused on the right side of that borderline—is because of the cast. The film is charming because Goldberg is superb as Sister Mary Clarence, and proves that she is a capable observational comedienne, whose not afraid to use a little physical humor, not as the joke, but to accentuate one. And the three Sisters—the bubbly, slightly buffoonish, and rotund Mary Patrick, the meek Mary Robert, who proves to have a powerful voice, and the acerbic and dry Mary Lazarus, who reveals herself to really just be a raunchy old lady—are key components in making sure the “Sister Act” machine runs as smooth as it does. (The respective actresses do a great job of crafting strong a character that is a likeable person for their own unique reasons, too.) Maggie Smith plays the straight-laced foil well, managing to make a character that, in opposition to the others, could be very easy to hate, but is somehow, ultimately, sympathetic. Whoppi and her cast mates are the fine-tuned cogs that keep the contrived contraption that is the entire concept from devolving into a calamitous catastrophe.

Despite its resolute religious setting, the film is never overly-serious, almost always funny (some of the dialogue is truly witty), and also one of the most secular movies ever made, in that Deloris is not a believer in the beginning and does not become one by the end. And all that makes the film even more palatable for someone like me. “Sister Act” may not be a particularly masterful film, and has very little artistic merit, but as a piece of fluff entertainment it’s excellent.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the follow up that quickly appeared in theaters the next year, which is as silly and unnecessary a sequel as, well, most sequels. It has no artistic merit—not that the original had any, or much—and isn’t nearly as entertaining as the first film. Most of “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit”—which is in some ways a more fitting title than the writers ever intended it to be, in that it’s both a pun but painfully on point in terms of repetitive narrative—seems instead concerned with attempting to recreate the magic of the first film by rehashing scenes, and reusing and reinterpreting jokes and ideas, we’ve already seen. It’s more of the same—but not nearly as fun or funny.

Stepping in for Emile Ardolino—who died in late 1993 from complications with AIDS, and was too sick to direct the sequel before his untimely death—as project helmer is actor and sometimes director Bill Duke. Duke, who made history here as the first African American to direct a major studio sequel, brings together all of the old cast, including Smith, Najimy, Makkena, Wickles and, of course, Goldberg, and adds a few new faces into the mix. Great character actors Michael Jeter and Barnard Hughes join the cast as a jittery priest and the aged, kindly but easily manipulated, Monsignor respectively.

Shaiman served as the music supervisor/adaptor on “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit”, but the actual score is credited to Miles Goodman and sadly, the non-diegetic music is not particularly praiseworthy. But perhaps Shaiman’s shucking of scoring duties was a good thing, as, with his attention focused entirely on the diegetic source music, Shaiman’s arrangements and selection of even better old R&B tunes than those featured in the first, make the musical numbers noteworthy and memorable. The film has a better soundtrack, but is worse than the original “Sister Act” in every other way. Like many sequels, everything that isn’t the exact same, is bigger in “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit”. This is especially true of the choreography, which is at times so comically overly elaborate you have to wonder if that’s the joke. The film opens with Deloris’ new show in Vegas, and it’s so over the top it makes some of the actual Sin City productions look positively subversive and subtle by comparison.

The plot is pretty simple: Deloris is called back into service to save a failing inner-city Catholic school on the verge of closure. The Reverend Mother wants the lounge singer turned famous centerpiece of a successful Vegas act to put the nun habit back on, and become Sister Mary Clarence once again. Surely, Mary Clarence can work her musical magic, again, and do what she did for the abbey at this school. (Of course she can, and does.) Sisters Mary Patrick, Mary Robert and Mary Lazarus are all teachers there too because, clearly, Deloris can’t do the task herself (and everyone loved these characters the first time, so they have to return). With Maggie Smith’s Reverend Mother in Whoopi’s court now, a new antagonist must appear, and he does in the form of a slimy member of the campus’ board of governors played by James Coburn. Slightly less threatening opposition comes in the form of Deloris’ manager, Joey Bustemante (Robert Pastorelli). Joey may not want to kill her, but the manager is that “showbiz city comes-a-following” Vince plot from the first movie, done over with a far less threatening tone.

“Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” is a prime example of the typically bloated and totally unnecessary sequel that Hollywood likes to dump out whenever a film is surprisingly successful. It attempts, and fails, at aping the first film—but is ultimately unsuccessful on almost every level, because that first was lighting in a bottle. “Sister Act” was a rare, shouldn’t have worked, once and done miracle; a film that was a success, both creatively and financially, in spite of everything against it. The sequel, although not unwatchable—it does have some charm, and Whoopi still plays her part well, gleefully sliding down banisters in her penguin outfit, and flinging the insult-laced street talk right back at her students whenever they give her hard time. But even the idea of nuns in the classroom doesn’t sustain—although the hellish Catholic school jokes almost write themselves—because what screenwriters James Orr, Jim Cruickshank and Judi Ann Mason simply crafted is a familiar (and, at the time, unseemly popular) story about an unconventional educator getting through to a group of teens in terrible situations, a la “Stand and Deliver” (1988) and “Lean on Me” (1989). Worse yet, with so much time devoted to the gaggle of ghetto kids (including one played by a Fugees-era Lauryn Hill), and the handful of new characters, the old, likable and loveable standards, get pushed aside. Ironically, in the attempt to copy everything from the original while also adding something new for the sequel, the filmmakers mess up the one thing that made “Sister Act” such a delight in the first place: the dynamic between Whoopi and the Sisters.

“Sister Act” remains a likeable, surprisingly amusing, comedy that somehow works despite everything against it. The sequel—although it has some better tunes—is inferior in essentially every way, and is decidedly NOT the reason to grab this double feature.

“Sister Act”: B
Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit”: C-

Video

Although Disney rarely misses the mark when it comes to their animated catalog on Blu-ray, the company’s handling of their live action content has been far less consistent. Discs coming from their more adult-oriented, non-animated, subsidiaries Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures have about equal representation on the Blu-ray format of the good and the… not so good. Some films make their high-def debut sporting spiffy (sometimes even brand-new) HD transfers; others barely surpass their DVD counterpart, looking way worse for wear, with far more flaws, than should really be acceptable in the era of HD media, minted from masters almost older than digital-disc-based home video itself. Before I viewed “Sister Act” and its sequel, I feared the worst, in part because the DVD editions of the films are non-anamorphic atrocities, and Disney has—for some unfathomable reason—decided to present both films on one dual layered disc.

Thankfully, both “Sister Act” and “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” make their transition to the new format via largely revelatory remastered transfers, presented in 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p 24/fps via twin AVC MPEG-4 encodes. Without question, after seeing both flicks in action, I can unequivocally say, my worry was for naught. Despite the fact that the two movies share a single disc, each is encoded at a healthy bitrate and neither presentation shows any evidence of compression artifacts, banding, noise, or other distracting or detrimental anomalies. In all likelihood—with the minimal special features (more on that below)—each film might have been on a BD-25, had they been pressed on own discs. Both transfers appear to be sourced from fairly recent scans of the original 35mm source elements. And most importantly, Disney has presented each with as little unnecessary post-production tinkering as possible. The presentations are naturally filmic, without any edge enhancement; yet appear spotless, free of major specks, dirt and debris, without the use of severe digital noise reduction. Of course, neither film is without a few source-related issues that keep me from grading them too high… but that still won’t stop me from gushing praise upon Disney for this pair of excellent transfers. We’d be lucky consumers of HD discs, and Disney would be the best of the best, if every one of their catalog releases looked as good as these films do on Blu-ray.

The first film looks the better of the two, but only because it’s the nicer shot production, in my opinion. Oscar-nominated cinematographer Adam Greenberg, who also shot “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991), followed up the cold steel-blue sterility of James Cameron and his awesomely ruthless robots by lensing the much lighter and more vibrant “Sister Act”. The clarity and sharpness of the image is staggering at times, made even more impressive by the fact there’s not a single frame that appears artificially sharpened. Colors are bold, lushly saturated and warm; the image is bright and colorful without appearing overly garish. Textures are excellent, with the finer details in faces and fabrics—like Whoopi’s sequined dress in the opening number revealing plenty of intricacies—appearing well rendered and crisp. “Sister Act” has moments of truly incredible clarity, and better still, contrast is spot on, with such a well-delineated black level that even the nun’s habits reveal slight gradations and details, while still retaining a remarkable deep black. A fine layer of natural film grain is unobtrusive, but omnipresent.

Of course, some moments in “Sister Act” are sharper, more vibrant, and less grainy than others. Mind you, not by any fault of Disney or their utterly faithful high definition rendering, but rather issues present in the original photography. Although, on the whole, the film features scenes of staggering sharpness, a few select shots are softer, and others slightly grainier throughout the runtime. But it’s really easy to forgive the minor inconsistencies when they occur, given the overall greatness—particularly in terms of color, contrast and detail—of the often-stunning presentation. This 20th anniversary rendition of “Sister Act” is not just the best the film has looked on home video; it might just be the best it’s looked, ever. And its also one of the more impressively faithful transfers Disney has given a live action film yet.

“Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit”, shot by cinematographer Oliver Wood, is softer, less vibrant, and more neutral in palate and overall appearance, although also more consistent, than its predecessor—although, once again, not by any fault of the transfer or Disney. Compared to the first film, detail isn’t as strong, depth and contrast isn’t as pronounced, and the earth tone-heavy colors are quite bland. But all by the design of Wood, who favors an odd combo of slight diffusion and an extremely shallow depth of field. On the upside, grain isn’t as prominent or uneven, and there isn’t near as much variance in sharpness or detail, giving the film a more consistent, if softer, quality. For that reason, I think some might actually prefer the sequel’s slicker visuals, and consider it the stronger transfer. Either way, like “Sister Act”, “Back in the Habit” features an exceedingly faithful presentation free of unnecessary tinkering, and Disney has provided not just marked improvement over the DVD but an dutiful and respectful one reflecting the original intentions of the filmmakers, which will surely please the few fans this one has.

“Sister Act”: A-
“Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit”: B

Audio

While one video presentation might be preferable to the other—or, at the very least, one is noticeably different than the other—“Sister Act” and “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” sound about the same, which is to say they sound fine, but not great. Originally released in theaters with Dolby surround, both films have been remixed into DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz/24-bit) for their Blu-ray debut, based on the DVD remixes from 2002, but those extra channels haven’t really added much. In fact, both films are still front focused affairs, with very little surround presence at all. Dialogue is intelligible and the tracks have decent depth and acceptable fidelity. Still, I have to say I’m a little disappointed, or actually noticeably underwhelmed, by both. Maybe its because they’re essentially massive musicals, but I admit I expected “Sister Act” and “Back in the Habit” to be fuller, livelier sonic experiences on Blu-ray. Shaiman and Goodman’s arrangements and scores lack the richer, fuller, qualities I was wanting. It’s not that either film sounds bad. Just, I was kind of taken aback by the somewhat reserved nature of music. Each film also features optional English for the hearing impaired and Spanish subtitles.

“Sister Act”: B-
“Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit”: B-

Extras

A “20th Anniversary” subtitle, three discs… and yet, not a single new extra. In fact, the Blu-ray—which houses both films, a featurette and a music video—actually has less content than the comparable DVD's also found in this set. Disappointing. It would’ve been nice to see a newly produced retrospective or commentary with Whoopi and the Sisters on the first film. Oh well.

DISC ONE: BLU-RAY ("Sister Act" & "Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit"):

“Inside ‘Sister Act’” (1.33:1 480i, 12 minutes 30 seconds) is an EPK featurette from the time of production. Director Emile Ardolino and many of the cast appear in this piece to talk about the casting, the script, the characters and other topics; film clips and behind-the-scenes footage from the set in interspersed throughout. Superficial and dated, the piece hardly suffices as the primary extra on a release noting its 20th anniversary.

90's cheese, oh my! The music video for “If My Sister’s In Trouble” (1.33:1 480i, 3 minutes 58 seconds) by Lady Soul is absolutely hilarious, but I don’t think that’s the intention.

Pre-menu bonus trailers are for:

- “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” (1.85:1 1080p, 2 minutes 9 seconds).
- “Castle: Season Four” (1080p, 1 minute 14 seconds).
- "Anti-Smoking" ad (1080i, 50 seconds).

DISC TWO: DVD ("Sister Act"):

“Sister Act” (and its sequel) was originally released on DVD in the early 2000's. This is that same disc, featuring an ugly non-anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer with English Dolby Digital 5.1 and French Dolby Surround 2.0 mixes, and optional English subtitles. Special features include the “Inside ‘Sister Act’” featurette, the music video from the Blu-ray and an additional music video for “I Will Follow Him” by Deloris and the Sisters (3:13) and the theatrical trailer (2:02).

DISC THREE: DVD ("Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit"):

Like its predecessor, “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” was originally released on DVD early in the new millennium. This is that same disc, featuring a non-anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer with English Dolby Digital 5.1 and French Dolby Surround 2.0 mixes. The only special feature is a theatrical trailer (2:07).

Packaging

“Sister Act” and its sequel, “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit”, boogie onto Blu-ray in a “20th Anniversary 2-movie collection” from Touchstone and Walt Disney Home Entertainment. The 3-disc release is housed in a single Elite keepcase; both films are encoded in high definition on a single, region free, BD-50; Region 1-locked DVD copies of the films have also been included, stacked on top of each other on a single spindle (which makes getting them out just awful; almost as awful as the video transfers on those discs).

Overall

Two decades on, “Sister Act” remains a charming comedy. It’s light fair, but the characters are likeable and the film certainly has a sense of fun about it. Sadly, the follow up hasn’t suddenly improved—“Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” is still quite the soulless exercise, and is the perfect example of an unnecessary sequel; its charms are few, although it does have a great soundtrack. Disney’s 20th anniversary 2-movie collection features a pair of excellent faithful-to-the-source 1080p remasters befitting the celebratory label. The lossless audio mixes are serviceable, but slightly underwhelming (frankly, I expected more from these musicals in this regard). Unfortunately, this set really disappoints in the area of extras; the Blu-ray disc actually has less bonus material than the included DVD's. This is one fans.

The Film: C+ Video: B+ Audio: B- Extras: D- Overall: C+

 


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