BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY
R, 1989, 145 minutes, MCA Universal Home Video, $91.95.
Oliver Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July" unfurls itself with an ambitious flourish, like a stirring, patriotic anthem. This is an impassioned movie, made with conviction and evangelical verve. It's also hysterical and overbearing and alienating. Using Ron Kovic's autobiographical account of his lower-middle-class, small-town American upbringing, Stone stretches an epic canvas and splatters onto it all his beliefs about Vietnam, America, family and patriotism. He begins Kovic's saga before Kovic enlists in the Marines for a tour in Vietnam that ultimately leaves him paralyzed from the chest down and leads him to overturn his cradle-born beliefs in God and country. The movie isn't simply about the war; it's about the disenchantment over the loss of the American dream. It's about how Kovic -- who's played with diligence here by Tom Cruise -- is betrayed by the Fourth of July parades he's watched as a boy, by the John Wayne movies and the Yankee Doodle hoopla. Stone has gifts as a filmmaker, but subtlety is not one of them. His major failing is that he's not interested in any emotional state that doesn't include fireworks and strobe effects. There's another problem: There have now been so many films about Vietnam, and we've seen so many innocent villagers gunned down, so many accidental deaths, so much tragedy and pain, that unless a radically different perspective is presented, a numbing sense of familiarity sets in. If we're going to have to endure these tortures again, there had better be an urgent need for it. In "Born on the Fourth of July" the urgency is there, but ultimately urgency alone is not good enough. -- Hal Hinson
JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO
PG-13, 1990, 106 minutes, Warner Home Video, $92.95.
It would be hard to say who is cuter, Bambi and Thumper or Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Indeed, the cute quotient goes through the roof when these sweethearts join forces in the caprice of "Joe Versus the Volcano." Written by John Patrick Shanley of "Moonstruck" fame, this fractured fairy tale marks Shanley's directorial debut. Hanks plays a hangdog Cinderfella who has developed job-related blotches and lumps while working at American Panascope, the wretched corporate "Home of the Rectal Probe." After eight dull gray years at Panascope, Joe is almost relieved to learn that he is dying of a "brain cloud." Then along comes a billionaire (leprechaun-like Lloyd Bridges) with a proposition -- unlimited credit card privileges if he will agree to sail to the isle of Waponi Woo and appease the god of the volcano. Ryan, the beguiling scamp, portrays the three women in Joe's life -- a shy secretary, a glamorous artist and the billionaire's rebellious daughter -- in this devoutly silly and endearing odyssey. Designed by Bo Welch of "Beetlejuice," the production is as visually diverting as a three-ring circus. A case of lava at first sight, as it were. -- Rita Kempley
ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN
G, 1989, 85 minutes, MGM/UA Home Video, $24.98.
Burt Reynolds does the talking for Charlie B. Barkin, the canine hero of this animated "Here Comes Mr. Jordan." An uneven musical fable, it varies from dull as chewed bones to puppy-dog darling. As in "The Land Before Time" and "The Secret of NIMH," director of animation Don Bluth gives the kiddies a judicious scare, the better to teach them a lesson. The story gets underway when Charlie, who breaks out of the pound with his cellmate, Itchy (Dom DeLuise), is iced by his former partner, Carface (Vic Tayback). One look at doggy paradise and Charlie steals back to earth to settle the score with his killer. This involves an orphan waif (Judith Barsi) who is searching for her parents, plus a dancing alligator and other critters singing sappy ditties. Evil gets its comeuppance and all dogs do go to heaven, but parental judgment is advisable. -- Rita Kempley
R, 1990, 97 minutes, IVE, $89.95.
In "Sweetie," Jane Campion's unsettlingly original, macabrely funny first film, the camera seems to capture its images from never-before-seen angles. Everything in the universe Campion has created is just slightly off kilter, as if the earth had positioned itself awkwardly beneath your feet. The film's subject is family life, but voices seem to call down from the flowers on the wallpaper, and every crack in the sidewalk threatens danger. From its opening shots on, the film unfolds a mood of enveloping peculiarity. In essence, "Sweetie" is a horror movie; it's about the horror of having relatives who crowd in, wear your clothes, occupy your guest room and, without the slightest urging, attach their lives to yours. Deeper down, though, there's another layer, and this is where Campion is happiest. Campion's style is based on inexpressiveness, on the thoughts that get tangled up and don't quite work themselves to the surface. Her jokes too hit you up side the head, like Freudian snowballs zinging in from nowhere. Campion, who comes from Australia, develops the film's narrative according to its own dark, neurotic logic. Overall, her work is vastly more compelling in the beginning, when Kay (Karen Colston), a bony Australian, is at center stage, than after the destabilizing arrival of her sister, Dawn (Genevieve Lemon) -- nicknamed "Sweetie" -- a well-upholstered nightmare with dyed jet-black hair, black fingernails and cradle-born dreams of a glamorous show-biz life. Still, this is a thrilling, atmospheric work marking the emergence of a perversely gifted talent. -- Hal Hinson