PG, 1989, 138 minutes, closed-captioned, CBS/Fox Video, $89.98.
Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V" emerges from the darkness with the rip and sputter of a struck match. It's a magnificent beginning and a startling metaphor -- an inspired equivalent for Shakespeare's "muse of fire" -- and the first stroke of brilliance in this audacious, resonant, passionate film. With this spark, Shakespeare's spokesman, Chorus (Derek Jacobi), flings open the door on his author's play, and the 28-year-old Branagh on his career as filmmaker. The work the young actor-director does here is steeped in powerful emotion. The film begins on the eve of war against France. We first see this Henry sitting upon his throne, surrounded by his advisers, a pale, potato-faced boy with an unyielding mouth and flinty eyes. Though this Harry is thoughtful, he is neither moody nor neurotic. He is not, in this sense, a modern hero. Yet neither is he the one-dimensional boy scout he is often portrayed as being, and neither is the play, as Branagh conceives it, an exercise in patriotic uplift. Branagh burrows under the play's stirring, jingoistic rhetoric to find something still, almost meditative. When Henry goes to war he goes wholeheartedly, as God's soldier, assured of the rightness of his claim. And Branagh does nothing as an actor or a director to undercut him. What he brings to actual battle sequences, though, is a tone of lamentation. When the English arrows fly against the French at Agincourt, the sound they make is like a tearing of the soul. And if there is glory in the heavy clanging of metal against metal and metal against flesh as the rains fall and the mud sucks at the soldiers' boots, it is a grim, devastating glory -- a glory weighted with sorrow. Everything about this remarkable production is exhilaratingly unexpected. -- Hal Hinson
THE SURE THING
PG-13, 1985, closed-captioned, 100 minutes, Nelson, $14.98.
Rockville native Steven Bloom and his college chum Jonathan Roberts were inspired by "It Happened One Night" when they wrote this delightful collegiate road comedy. Directed by Rob Reiner, "The Sure Thing" stars John Cusack, then 17, as a desperately horny Ivy League freshman who accepts a transcontinental blind date with Nicollette Sheridan, the Sure Thing of the title. Only on the way west, he finds the Real Thing (Daphne Zuniga) and his young life becomes immeasurably more complicated. Zuniga, a starchy preppie miss, becomes caught up in the cross-country romance a la "When Harry Met Sally ..." when she and Cusack find they are sharing a ride to the Coast. The two are initially incompatible, but their mutual animosity turns to love somewhere near Albuquerque. So now Cusack must choose between easy sex with Sheridan and personal growth here in the guise of true love. Cusack's energetic performance drives the movie on its happy way. "The Sure Thing" is being released as part of a package of Reiner films. -- Rita Kempley
GREMLINS 2 -- THE NEW BATCH
PG-13, 1990, 107 minutes, closed-captioned, Warner Home Video, $92.95.
The tone of Joe Dante's "Gremlins 2 -- The New Batch" is set even before the actual movie has started. The picture begins with the familiar logo from the Looney Tunes cartoons, and lounging on top, as usual, is Bugs, carrot in hand and a prankish gleam in his eye. That gleam expresses completely the spirit of the Warner Bros. animations, and precisely what Dante is hoping to reproduce -- a kind of live-action Looney Tune, a flesh-and-blood movie with a cartoon heart. But the soul of Bugs is barely in evidence here. Very little in this sequel is markedly different from the original; even the stars (Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates), the creatures and the basic setup are the same. After the passing of the old Chinaman who owned him, Gizmo, the impossibly adorable Mogwai who was the source of all the mischief in the earlier picture, is plucked out of an alley in New York's Chinatown and taken to Clamp Centre, a corporate gulag that serves as headquarters for a financial empire run by a Donald Trump-like mega-magnate named Daniel Clamp (John Glover). The movie picks up steam, though, in its second half when thousands of floppy-eared demons -- who are close in temperament to Hell's Angels -- begin speeding through Clamp's corridors of power with most evil intent, laying waste to everything in their path. Dante and special-effects wizard Rick Baker have focused all of their ingenuity on the creatures. Clearly it's with them, and not the film's real actors, that Dante has felt the greater empathy. -- Hal Hinson
CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE?
Unrated, 1983, 90 minutes, Paramount Pictures, $39.95.
Filmmakers don't come any more independent than Henry Jaglom, Hollywood's most stubbornly self-indulgent auteur. He is even more of an urban neurotic than Woody Allen, and his work can be as psychodramatically insightful as it is downright irritating. And "Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?," one of a package of three Jaglom works, is both of these. A bittersweet comedy about love and loneliness, it stars Karen Black as a jittery, recently jilted wife who has an experimental affair with Michael Emil, as a talkative, hypochondriacal doctor. A rambling, sporadically wry curiosity, "Cherry Pie" is being released on video along with Jaglom's 1977 Vietnam drama "Tracks," and the 1989 comedy of relationships "New Year's Day." Jaglom, like a martini, is definitely an acquired taste. -- Rita Kempley