The following summaries of current, widely shown films are provided to help readers plan what to see. Inclusion of a movie does not imply Monitor endorsement. Further description is often supplied in articles on the arts-entertainment pages.m
ABSENCE OF MALICE -- A reporter (Sally Field) is unwittingly used by the police to print an unfair story that might pressure a businessman (Paul Newman) into helping with an investigation. The issues of the film are commendably complex -- involving the responsibilities as well as the freedom of the press -- but they are submerged a bit too deeply in a love story between the principal characters. And some of the plot twists are too schematic to sustain the movie's generally thoughtful approach. Directed by Sydney Pollack.
ARTHUR -- Sometimes hilarious, sometimes distasteful comedy about a very rich drunk and his unassuming woman friend. Directed by Steve Gordon, who relies for too many laughs on the hero's besotted state.
ATOMIC CAFE, THE -- A chilling, harrowing, sometimes hilarious compilation of military, educational, and propaganda footage from the 1940s and '50s, all designed to ''sell'' the newly discovered atomic bomb to the American public as painlessly as possible. A first-rate ''nostalgia'' film, in a grim sort of way; but the real meaning lies on deeper levels, as the material illustrates government, school, and military propaganda techniques and raises implicit questions about the roots of popular blindness to the real threat of nuclear war. Directed by Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader, and Pierce Rafferty.
A WEEK'S VACATION -- A young schoolteacher, at the end of her tether, takes a week off and confronts a number of personal problems. Not as heavy as it sounds, but not exactly gripping, either. A film from France, smoothly and even fetchingly directed by Bertrand Tavernier. (Contains brief nudity.)
CAT PEOPLE -- A young woman discovers that her family tree has supernatural roots in this erotic fantasy, which is punctuated by sexual innuendo and some lurid violence. The first half contains a number of effectively chilling moments; the later scenes are often flat. Directed by Paul Schrader. (Rated R for vulgar language and nudity.)
CHARIOTS OF FIRE -- Vigorous but rather scattered account of two gallant young runners in the 1924 Olympics, based on the real-life experiences of Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell. A British film directed by Hugh Hudson. Winner 1981 Academy Award for Best Picture.
CHRISTIANE F. -- Extraordinarily graphic account of a teen-age girl's descent into a nightmare of drugs and prostitution, with no hint of romanticizing or glamorizing its grim subject matter. A cautionary, sometimes disgusting drama from West Germany, directed by Erlich Edel.
DAS BOOT -- Except for a number of scatological details and vulgar words, this is an old-fashioned action movie about a German submarine during World War II. As everyone knows, there isn't much you can do in a submarine picture, but this one contains all the venerable conventions of the genre, from the emergency dive to the obligatory close-ups of the water-pressure gauge. A film from West Germany, directed by Wolfgang Petersen.
DEATHTRAP -- Virtually nothing is as it seems in Sidney Lumet's comedy thriller about a successful playwright, his high-strung wife, and his eager protege. Based on the Broadway hit by Ira Levin, with a reconstructed ending that doesn't trail off into sheer silliness as the stage version does. (Rated PG for vulgar language, occasional violence, and a homosexual element in the story line.)
EVIL UNDER THE SUN -- Prettily filmed but flat Agatha Christie mystery about a beautiful woman murdered at a summer resort. Directed by Guy Hamilton. (Rated PG for a little vulgar language and one or two violent images.)
FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN, THE -- Adult, literate, refreshingly intelligent adaptation of John Fowles's ingenious novel about a Victorian gentleman who loses his heart to an enigmatic woman. Director Karel Reisz and screenwriter Harold Pinter use a film-within-the-film device to reproduce the book's combination of 19th-century narrative and 20th-century interpretation. The sexual aspects of the book are also included, though treated with comparative restraint. The novel's wealth of information about Victorian England is given short shrift, and the story rarely generates the keen excitement of Fowles's best passages. As photographed by Freddie Francis, however, this is the most ravishingly beautiful movie in ages, overflowing with treats for the eye. Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons lead the capable cast.
GENOCIDE -- Documentary about the extermination of millions of Jews and others by Nazi Germany. Overproduced, but devastatingly effective. Directed by Arnold Schwartzman for the Simon Wiesenthal Center at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, a Holocaust study center and museum.
HEALTH -- A crowded, comical look at a health-food convention, focusing on two candidates for leadership of the ''health'' movement: an octogenarian who falls asleep at key moments of her campaign, and a zealot with an uncanny resemblance to the late Adlai Stevenson. Directed by Robert Altman with his usual ambition but little of his usual inspiration.
I'M DANCING AS FAST AS I CAN -- A woman executive fights off her addiction to tranquilizers, helped first by her insecure boyfriend and later by a psychiatrist. Grim, harrowing, and explicit, though sometimes savagely funny. Directed by Jack Hofsiss.
MAKING LOVE -- Triangle involving a man, his wife, and his male lover. The ostensible message is that homosexuals are just like everybody else. The actual message is that everybody is just like everybody else, so flat and homogenized is the film's astoundingly shallow vision of American life. A well-meaning but appallingly superficial drama, directed by Arthur Hiller. (Rated R for occasional foul language and glimpses of homosexual behavior.)
MAN OF IRON -- Politically invigorating but cinematically disappointing drama about the first days of the still-young and still-troubled Solidarity labor movement in Poland, directed (as a sequel to his earlier ''Man of Marble,'' about the Stalinist days of Poland) by premier Polish filmmaker Andzrej Wajda.
MEPHISTO -- In pre-Nazi Germany an ambitious actor compromises with his culture and his conscience for the sake of success, then finds himself a reluctant but hopelessly entangled ally of the new Hitler regime. While the filmmaking by Istvan Szabo is rather slack at times, the most effective scenes add up to a lavishly filmed, energetically acted drama charged with moral and intellectual suspense. Though it contains moments of perverse sexuality, reflecting the protagonist's perverse personality, the movie is less lurid (and seems somewhat less contrived) than the original novel by Klaus Mann, which was itself based on a true case history.
MISSING -- An American businessman searches for his mysteriously vanished son after a coup in a Latin American country and comes to suspect United States complicity in the grim events that surround him. A splendidly filmed and deeply moving human drama, though it has aroused controversy with its opinionated version of occurrences clearly based on events in Chile after the overthrow of Salvador Allende Gossens. Directed by Costa-Gavras. (Rated PG for a few vulgar words and a couple of scenes depicting the aftermath of violence.)
MY DINNER WITH ANDRE -- Playing themselves, two real-life theater personalities - Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn - have a two-hour dinner and talk about everything from mystical experiences to electric blankets. An amazingly engaging and funny experience, though more like a jazz improvisation than an ordinary movie. Directed by the unpredictable Louis Malle.
ON GOLDEN POND -- Very sentimental but often very funny story about a retired professor facing old age, his wife's loving concern, the delayed maturity of their grown-up daughter, and a foul-mouthed teen-ager who comes to stay with them and precipitates a very contrived resolution. Directed by Mark Rydell, with an excellent performance by Henry Fonda and good ones by Katharine Hepburn and Jane Fonda. (Contains vulgar language.)
ONE FROM THE HEART -- A man and woman split up, have romantic flings, and get together again during the Fourth of July weekend in Las Vegas. A great big beautiful bore, ornately directed by Francis Coppola, with little charm and less meaning. (Rated R for some sexual suggestiveness and vulgar language.)
PASSIONE D'AMORE -- A mix of melodrama, romanticism, and absurdism, about a young 19th-century officer who finds himself zealously pursued by a woman who is the exact opposite of his ideal. Artfully directed by Ettore Scole. (Contains occasional sex scenes between the hero and a secondary character.)
PERSONAL BEST -- Two young athletes establish a lesbian relationship, then compete with each other for a berth on the United States Olympics team. An opportunistic film, ranging from voyeuristic sex to gushy athletic scenes in schmaltzy slow motion. Written and directed by Robert Towne.
QUEST FOR FIRE -- Prehistoric cave people battle for survival. Sweepingly filmed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, with dialogue in an invented pre-Indo-European language. (Rated R for explicit sexual behavior and violence.)
RAGTIME -- Sweeping, colorful adaptation of E. L. Doctorow's book about turn-of-the-century American life, mostly cleaned up (except for a brief nude scene) and curiously adapted in such a way that most of the novel's political threads -- involving the socialist movement, anarchist Emma Goldman, and a bloody strike in a New England factory town - have been thrown out. Still, the powerful story line about a black man's revenge on a vicious and foolish white society carries all its impact to the screen. Carefully and capably directed by Milos Forman.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK -- An adventurer named Indiana Jones races a bunch of evil Nazis in a search for the lost Ark of the Covenant, repository of the Ten Commandments and supposedly imbued with astonishing powers. Directed by Steven Spielberg with an amazing visual inventiveness that fades a bit and lapses into occasional pointless violence in the second hour.
REDS -- Massive account of the life and career of journalist John Reed, an early Communist who fought for socialism in the United States and helped out with the Soviet Revolution. An audacious and impressive attempt to plumb a complicated and not particularly fashionable subject. But it would work better if Warren Beatty (the director, producer, co-author, and star) didn't subordinate the entire socialist movement to a dull and ordinary love story about Reed's rocky relationship with fellow radical Louise Bryant, who eventually becomes his wife. The movie's structuring device, however -- intercutting dramatic scenes with real-life reminiscences of the period -- works brilliantly. (Contains some vulgar language and a few hazy sex scenes.)
RICHARD PRYOR LIVE ON THE SUNSET STRIP -- Filmed comedy routine touching on everything from prisons and sex to Pryor's own injury in an explosion and fire. (Rated R for constant, sometimes extremely vulgar language.)
SHOOT THE MOON -- Flawed but moving and intelligent drama about a marriage falling apart, focusing not just on the fading romance between the adults, but on their family group, treating grown-ups and children alike as the whole human beings they are. Directed by Alan Parker from Bo Goldman's screenplay. (Rated R for vulgar language, some of it spoken by youngsters.)
THREE BROTHERS -- Italian drama about three men who return to their sleepy hometown after their mother's death and reveal a lot about themselves as they renew old ties with their origins and one another. Directed by Francesco Rosi with great restraint, and a few positively transcendent moments.
TICKET OF NO RETURN -- ''Portrait of a Woman Drinker'' is the subtitle of this blackly comic drama that uses the travels of a fashionable woman through West Berlin as a metaphor for contemporary European decadence. Directed by Ulrike Ottinger.
VICTOR/VICTORIA -- Julie Andrews plays an aspiring singer who finds an unusual gimmick for success on the nightclub circuit in Paris during the '30s: pretending to be a man impersonating a woman. Rated PG for some vulgar language and the homosexuality of a character played by Robert Preston, which leads to some irritating humor. But basically an old-fashioned farce, with many variations on well-tested comedy routines. Written and directed by Blake Edwards.
WASN'T THAT A TIME! -- Friendly documentary about the celebrated folk-music quartet known as the Weavers, centering on their preparations for a reunion concert at Carnegie Hall.