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Wide Awake DVD Review (2012 Echo Bridge Edition)

Wide Awake (1998) movie poster Wide Awake

Theatrical Release: March 20, 1998 / Running Time: 88 Minutes / Rating: PG / Songs List

Writer/Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Cast: Joseph Cross (Joshua A. Beal), Timothy Reifsnyder (Dave O'Hara), Dana Delany (Mrs. Beal), Denis Leary (Mr. Beal), Robert Loggia (Grandpa Beal), Rosie O'Donnell (Sister Terry), Camryn Manheim (Sister Sophia), Vicki Giunta (Sister Beatrice), Julia Stiles (Neena Beal), Heather Casler (Hope), Dan Lauria (Father Peters), Stefan Niemczyk (Frank Benton), Michael Pacienza (Freddie Waltman), Michael Shulman (Robert Brickman), Michael Craig Bigwood (Little Boy), Gil Robbins (Cardinal Geary), Jerry Walsh (Football Coach)

Buy Wide Awake from Amazon.com: New Echo Bridge DVD • Out-of-Print Disney DVD

The Sixth Sense would rank among cinema's all-time greatest directorial debuts, if only it was M. Night Shyamalan's first film. The 1999 supernatural suspense thriller, released on Shyamalan's 29th birthday, was the masterwork of a young unknown filmmaker, exalted by critics and adored by moviegoers whose need to rewatch the film after being stunned by its twist ending catapulted it to tremendous heights at the box office.
It's tough to imagine anyone who waited more than a year or two to see that rare cultural phenomenon blindsided by its widely-discussed, jaw-dropping finale. And yet, the movie is more than just an unusually popular summer diversion and has been recognized as such with everything from six Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) to status-affirming placement on the American Film Institute's all-time 100 greatest movies list in 2007.

That triumphant breakthrough announced Shyamalan as the heir apparent to Alfred Hitchcock, and though it remains as celebrated as ever, the promise with which it equipped its Indian-American writer-director has long since faded. Shyamalan's swift follow-up, the comic book-inspired Unbreakable, was no Sixth Sense, though many speak highly of it. His next film, 2002's alien invasion flick Signs, was another massive hit, though one that some people could find fault in. It's all been downhill since then, starting with the coolly-reviewed, front-loaded The Village (2004) and worsening with the disliked, highly unprofitable Lady in the Water (2006), the critically reviled The Happening (2008), and the positively loathsome The Last Airbender (2010).

Shyamalan remains one of just a few writer-directors whose names are recognized by the general public, but it's recognized today for all the wrong reasons. His Wikipedia entry currently devotes four paragraphs to unrealized projects, three to a lamebrained Sci-Fi Channel hoax documentary produced to promote The Village, five to his reliance on twist endings and seemingly unfounded plagiarism claims, and mere passing mention of The Sixth Sense. Sure, that seems biased and unencyclopedic, but who among us can leap to his defense without being utterly dispirited by the path his career has taken? Shyamalan's name has now carried a negative connotation for longer than it stood as an invitation to quality popular entertainment. The director's ego-driven marketing campaigns and bonus features have not helped.

Shyamalan's filmmaking journey did not, however, begin with The Sixth Sense. Seven years earlier, while evidently still enrolled at New York University, he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in Praying with Anger, a small, parentally-funded English language Indian film that has remained in obscurity, never released to home video in the United States. In between that oddly scarce 1992 curiosity and the 1999 mega-blockbuster, Shyamalan wrote and directed the subject of this review, the 1998 coming-of-age family dramedy Wide Awake.

"Wide Awake" centers on Joshua A. Beal (Joseph Cross), a little boy with big existential questions. Joshua's parents (Denis Leary and Dana Delany) do not have all the answers to his questions, but take interest in him nonetheless.

For a long time, Shyamalan's American film debut looked like a real outlier, as inexplicable as Praying and his screenwriting credit on 1999's Stuart Little. Shyamalan made a very specific kind of movie, a personal and thrilling PG-13 fantastic drama. With the director's perhaps inevitable branching out in recent years to an R rating (The Happening), story/producing-only (Devil), and adapting another well-known family property (The Last Airbender), his departures have become less striking. Still, Wide Awake easily remains his least-known American film credit, one the public is apt to overlook and dissociate from his trademark thrillers.

Set and shot in Shyamalan's adopted home base of Philadelphia, Wide Awake tells the story of Joshua A. Beal's year in fifth grade. Short, sleepy Joshua (Joseph Cross) has recently lost his best friend, his grandfather (Robert Loggia), to bone marrow cancer. The combination of that unexpected death and his Catholic school education at the all-boys Waldron Mercy Academy inspires Joshua to embark on a mission to find God.

That premise seems equally disarming and cutesy. Indeed, Wide Awake meets both of those descriptions squarely. This is one of the increasingly rare films to consider religion seriously and not with an agenda but an open mind. It doesn't equate faith with magic, skew practice and tradition, or speak in the generic terms of spirituality. Joshua's mission is one clearly shaped by Catholicism, specifically the Catholicism of his old-fashioned private school which he attends in blazer, tie, and khaki shorts.

Joshua's longing for answers is not specific to the Trinity or other parts of Catholic doctrine. We're told, but not shown, that he experiments with other faiths, observing Hanukkah and fasting for a whole six hours. Mostly, his quandary comes down to the existence of God, with the salvation of his devout Grandpa the unspoken motivation. The film shares slices of Joshua's life, mostly at school, where he comes to better understand three of his dark-haired classmates, daredevil best friend Dave O'Hara (Timothy Reifsnyder), poor bully Freddie Waltman (Michael Pacienza), and overweight dork Frank Benton (Stefan Niemczyk). Joshua's parents (Denis Leary and Dana Delany) are established as generally caring and supportive, but they along with older sister Neena (Julia Stiles) are otherwise not terribly well defined.

Occasionally, Shyamalan's writing, particularly involving self-growth and discovery, is trite and clichιd, but the existential bend of the whole is quite tasteful and earnest, and the Catholic grade school flavor authentic and endearing. There is some cheesiness, mostly born out of Joshua's precociousness, which his slight, youthful presence exaggerates. It's interesting how many elements and scenes are recalled in The Sixth Sense, which tackles some of the same themes with a similar child protagonist. Believe it or not, there is even a twist ending of sorts in Wide Awake, one which like the tag in The Village cheapens what has come before instead of distorting it in a compelling way. That conclusion, the only brush with fantasy here, will comfort some viewers and leave a sour taste in the mouths of others. But it can't undo the thoughtful 80 minutes of soul-searching that precede it.

This flashback depicts Grandpa Beal (Robert Loggia) and Joshua (Joseph Cross) using snow in a theological discussion. Sports fan nun Sister Terry (Rosie O'Donnell) refers to Jesus' Disciples in baseball terms.

Wide Awake did very little business at the box office, receiving limited theatrical release from Miramax Films. With its design and themes, that much was probably inevitable, which makes one wonder how Shyamalan got a greenlight and reported $6 million budget to begin with and how this then cleared the way for him to direct his Sixth Sense script with a $40 M budget.
Obviously, all worked out well for Shyamalan and he remains both famous and influential, unlike, for instance, the makers of the other big summer '99 horror hit, The Blair Witch Project. It is tough to foresee such a destiny in viewing this humble U.S. debut.

Though this is a 1998 film by all accounts, the copyright date given is 1997 and evidently the film was shot all the way back in 1995. That would explain the Dennis Rodman in a San Antonio Spurs uniform clipping hanging inside a boy's locker, which more prominently features Latrell Sprewell, whose December 1997 choking of Golden State Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo would have made him an even less appropriate children's idol than The Worm.

Wide Awake didn't open as many doors for its cast members, although Julia Stiles would break out the following year with 10 Things I Hate About You jump-starting her modern Shakespeare gal phase. Many of the child actors' filmographies don't extend far, if at all, into this millennium. The one exception is Joseph Cross, who after starring in the much-maligned Christmas family film Jack Frost, dabbled in television, and has since returned to films, appearing in movies like Untraceable, Milk, and Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis' upcoming Lincoln. None of that work has meant as much to me as Cross' improbable, disputed role in the dissolution of the nine-year romantic partnership of British actors David Thewlis and Anna Friel. (Look it up if you're ever bored!)

Disney's sale of Miramax is the only reason why Wide Awake is being revisited on DVD at this point in time. Echo Bridge Home Entertainment returns it to print next Tuesday as part of their ongoing use of the less familiar portions of the Miramax library they acquired to fuel their value-driven catalog output.

It's fascinating how the passing of fourteen years has downgraded the perception of Rosie O'Donnell from beloved talk show host to angry lesbian celebrity, a move reflected in her shift from focal and singled-out cast member of poster/box art to being relegated to merely a small rear cover image on the new DVD. (O'Donnell plays sporty nun Sister Terry, a likable leading character, for which she receives an "and" credit.) Likewise, billing the movie as "From the Director of THE VILLAGE and THE SIXTH SENSE" seems almost like a nod to one of the more memorable jokes from I Love You, Man, in which Rob Huebel's douchey character ignores a decade's worth of Shyamalan marketing to identify him as "the director of The Village."

Wide Awake (Echo Bridge Home Entertainment edition) DVD cover art -- click for larger view and to buy from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Surround 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: None; Not Closed Captioned
Release Date: January 10, 2012
Suggested Retail Price: $6.99
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Black Keepcase
Previously released on DVD by Buena Vista Home Entertainment


Echo Bridge never goes out of its way to clarify the technical specs of its presentations, but Wide Awake appears in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and two-channel Dolby surround sound. The former would seemingly improve upon Disney's 2000 disc, which was stupidly not enhanced for 16:9 displays.
Nonetheless, picture quality here falls short of satisfactory. The movie looks soft, blurry, and aged. Small specks and scratches appear throughout with some regularity and certain shots strangely lack focus. Apart from the aspect ratio, it looks and sounds like a brand-new '90s VHS might, which is far less than a 2011 DVD should. The sound is mostly intelligible, but sometimes muffled and never as crisp as you'd like.

Though both should have been inherited along with this title, neither English subtitles nor closed captioning are offered (there is a subtitles stream, but it is empty). Nor, for that matter, are the French dub and Spanish subtitles from Disney's old DVD.

The film opens with a short version of Miramax's current logo and ends, oddly, with nearly a minute of black screen.

Echo Bridge's lack of effort is evident in the DVD's plain main menu... ...and even more so in this chapters screen which neither names nor photographically previews the scenes.


Wide Awake is joined by no bonus features here. Its original DVD included the theatrical trailer, something that would have been even more welcome here. Knowing the film's obscure status and Echo Bridge's aversion to producing new extras, the movie is unlikely to get more than this anytime soon, unfortunately.

The two silent, static 16:9 menus reformat front and rear case imagery, not even bothering to use pictures or titles for the ten chapter stops.

One last packaging observation must be added to the ones above, which is that Dana Delany randomly claims the spine image here (placed above the same five cast names of the front cover), possibly her first and certainly her least deserved solo spine.

As Father Peters, Dan Lauria plays a different kind of father than the one "Wonder Years" fans know him as. On a museum class trip, Joshua (Joseph Cross) gets stuck in the turnstile with Frank (Stefan Niemczyk), the portly boy he's been blowing off.


Though the new DVD presentation leaves much to be desired, M. Night Shyamalan's Wide Awake is an interesting little film well worth seeing. It is probably too obscure to expect a better-looking Blu-ray anytime soon, and despite the disc's shortcomings, its 16:9 enhancement must best its original DVD and its asking price is as low as that of any new DVD.

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Related Reviews:
New to DVD: Moneyball • Midnight in Paris
Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan: The Village The Happening
Inspired by M. Night Shyamalan: The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan • It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: The Complete Season 5
1998 Movies: Rushmore • A Bug's Life • The Parent Trap • Armageddon • I'll Be Home for Christmas • Mulan
1990s: Angels in the Outfield • Air Bud • Four Rooms • The Santa Clause • Jack • Jingle All the Way
Robert Loggia: Big • Scarface • Elfego Baca | Julia Stiles: 10 Things I Hate About You
Kids: Flipped • Hand in Hand • Diary of a Wimpy Kid • Bridge to Terabithia

Wide Awake Songs List: John Carbo - "This Ain't a Song (It's a Prayer)", Zeitmahl - "Blame", The Bathers - "Pint of Nails", The Winebottles - "I Don't Know", "June Light"

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Reviewed January 5, 2012.

Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1998 Miramax Films and Woods Entertainment, 2012 Echo Bridge Home Entertainment.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.