These are the times that try men's VCRs—women's too. Sometimes there's a therapeutic value to going out to see a movie—any movie—but with releasing schedules in doldrums territory, it's tempting to give the old Googolplex a rest. So here are videotape-available alternatives to three new films. As a McCarthy-era portrait, instead of or in addition to Guilty by Suspicion, try The Front, Martin Ritt's darkly comic look at Red-baiting, with Woody Allen standing in for blacklisted writers. As for Cadence's military injustice, prisoner defiance and blockheaded stubbornness, try Cool Hand Luke, Vie Caine Mutiny or The Last Detail. And for a spy spoof featuring a young actor (instead of If Looks Could Kill), the Abrahams-Zucker-Zucker comedy Top Secret! has some funny moments, in addition to offering viewers the chance retroactively to discover Val Kilmer.

The Sheen/Estevez Family, Larry Fishburne

First, a warning. Some ads for this film depict a group of cavorting, grinning black men who seem to be in a comedy. The film itself is a comedy only to those who find racism, sadism and murder funny.

The men in the ad play prisoners in an Army stockade in Germany in 1965. They have all been charged with serious crimes and had turned the stockade into a blacks-only club when a white private, Charlie Sheen, joins them after punching an MP.

Sheen's father. Martin, directing for the first time, also plays the bigoted sergeant who runs the stockade. Ramon Estevez, another Sheen son, is a stockade guard. That this resembles a Sheen family home movie, though, is the least of its shortcomings.

Sheen the Elder has said that he and writer Dennis (Run) Shyrack changed the character of the white private after Charlie accepted the role, to make him less disagreeable. That removed a potential source of evocative tension as Charlie gradually earns the other soldiers' acceptance.

They also turned Charlie's attempt to rebuild a windmill into a fourth-rate Bridge on the River Kwai-style obsession; it's never believable that he convinces the black inmates to join him on his pointless project during work-detail breaks either.

The ending includes an artificially sketched dramatic incident and an even more unlikely regression in the relationship between Charlie and the black soldiers.

The plot, set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, has real possibilities. The Sheens can act, and Fishburne, as the leader of the black stockade residents, has a sly, Jack Nicholson-like way of ingratiating himself. (James Marshall, as a stockade guard, and Blu Mankuma and Harry Stewart as inmates also distinguish themselves.)

As it is, the film lurches along, shooting itself in the credibility periodically. (PG-13)

Robert De Niro, George Wendt

Righteous indignation and self-conscious nobility oozing out of every frame, this admirably intentioned but dutiful film is about the House Un-American Activities Committee's forays into Hollywood in the McCarthy era of the late '40s and early '50s.

De Niro portrays, with his usual insight, a director who becomes a target because he had attended two Communist Party meetings. After he defies the committee's demand that he implicate others, his career is ruined. (In real life the committee pressured or subpoenaed actors, directors and writers into testifying; those who "confessed" to often loosely defined Communist activities or informed on other supposed transgressors were usually allowed to continue their careers. Those who didn't cooperate were often imprisoned or put on blacklists and kept from working in films.

Of course it was shameful that so many members of Congress and their ex officio allies in the Communist-dreading paranoia of the time ruined so many people's lives. Of course the events of the era remain a lesson that can't be reexamined too often.

But this movie presents the situation in predictable, mechanical terms, except for an exchange in which De Niro confronts committee member Gailard {Hard Country) Sartain, bringing the cynical injustice the movie keeps alluding to into focus.

One problem is that writer-director Irwin Winkler makes De Niro such a saintly figure. His worst sin is that he's a workaholic, and it's not clear why he and Annette Bening divorced. (Their reromance is a subplot that's as bloodless as the main story.)

Winkler, a producer (Raging Bull Rocky) directing his first film, puts his ducks in a row and then takes potshots at them with metronomic regularity. Patricia (thirty-something) Wettig, as an actress whose husband has turned informant, goes crazy by the numbers. Cheers' Wendt, as De Niro's best friend, heads for the kind of trouble you knew he was heading for all along.

Meanwhile, Winkler shows a capricious approach to naming real people who were involved in the HUAC Goes to Hollywood scandal. He suggests that producer Darryl Zanuck, for instance, was a sellout and hints that Humphrey Bogart was at least a HUAC fellow traveler. Yet the character clearly modeled on Roy Cohn, the McCarthy protégé whose enjoyment of the extortive power of his role helped escalate the crisis, is called Ray Karlin.

This distraction hardly helps an audience focus on Dc Niro's plight. Even the ironic casting of Sam Wanamaker, who was blacklisted 40 years ago, backfires; he (albeit understandably) displays no feel for his role as a lawyer who tries to talk witnesses into cooperating with the committee.

Director Martin Scorsese plays a filmmaker who flees to England to avoid testifying. His performance has a nervous, grim flippancy that's intriguing. But as it turns out, everybody might have been better off if Winkler had cast himself in Scorsese's role and let Scorsese handle the film. (PG-13)

Richard Grieco, Linda Hunt

Mildly amusing at odd moments, but mostly just silly, this spy spoof is about a Detroit high school student on a class trip to France who gets mistaken for a CIA agent.

As the student, 21 Jump Street star Grieco makes his movie debut. He's competent, although the main impression he leaves is of having spent too long in makeup—he resembles Prince on a mascara binge.

It helps that director William (Harry and the Hendersons) Dear and production designer Guy (Quest for Fire) Comtois give the film a high-class thriller look. If the film's gadgets and settings aren't up to James Bond standards, they do hit a 005½ level or so. Hunt and Roger Rees, from Cheers, handle the villainy with élan as two blackguards plotting to rule Europe; Robin Bartlett tackles the flimsy role of Grieco's tyrannical French teacher with panache too.

The script, by Darren (TV's Beverly Hills 90210) Star, is what drags the project down. Lines such as "Shut up, you whining bitch" are used as jokes. The gags include the name of Grieco's school—Edsel High-and that of Rees's bimbo henchwoman, Areola Canasta (played voluptuously by Carole Davis). Star can't even get his syntax straight: "Of course," says an armaments expert, "X rays are impervious to lead."

Grieco fanatics in a tolerant mood may find the movie to be acceptably amusing, all things considered. Anyone else will start perplexed—how can a guy who looks to be a well-used 30 still be in high school?—and get more restless by the minute. (PG-13)