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July 19, 1987|Kevin Thomas

Robert Benton's Kramer vs. Kramer (ABC Sunday at 9 p.m.) is one of the key American films of the '70s, one of those intimate films that are possible only when an actor of Dustin Hoffman's stature agrees to star in them. Hoffman is shattering as the husband and father whose wife (Meryl Streep) abruptly leaves him and their young son (Justin Henry), who barely know each other. Kramer vs. Kramer cuts to the heart of the anguish and bitterness of divorce, intensified, as it so often is, by a custody battle.

Directed by Lamont Johnson and written by John Sayles, Out of the Darkness (CBS Sunday at 9 p.m.) is a taut, fascinating, well-acted suspense story, but at times it seems in limbo, unsure of whether it's primarily a domestic drama about the family problems of a cop (Martin Sheen) who happened to be involved in solving the Son of Sam case or whether it's a police story centering on the capture of the infamous serial killer. Also, it's debatable as to how authentic it is as docudrama.

Although tedious and stagnant, Perry Mason Returns (NBC Sunday at 9 p.m.), in which Raymond Burr's Mason comes to the rescue of his former secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale), was so popular as a two-hour movie it led to four more Perry Mason TV movies.

Unnatural Causes (NBC Monday at 9 p.m.), which deals with the Vietnam veterans who have become victims of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, isn't as passionate as its real-life subjects but is effective in sympathetically portraying a VA benefits counselor (Alfre Woodard) in her determined struggle to make a bureaucracy act humanely and in depicting the sense of betrayal experienced by a veteran (John Ritter) stricken with cancer.

G.I. Blues (Channel 7 Monday at 9 p.m.) is standard Elvis Presley issue, enlivened by the presence of Juliet Prowse.

The 1986 TV movie The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James (NBC Tuesday at 9 p.m.) stars Kris Kristofferson as Jesse and Johnny Cash as Frank and focuses on the period of their lives when they tried to put their outlaw days behind them and settle down as respectable farmers.

Don Siegel's The Shootist (Channel 13 Wednesday at 8 p.m.) is a grandly elegiac Western that was a fitting farewell for John Wayne, cast as a dying gunfighter who craves a peaceful end but has one last mission to accomplish. It's notable for its provocative, ambiguous attitude toward the passing of the Old West.

Airplane II: The Sequel (CBS Thursday at 9 p.m.) isn't as funny as the original because it's too much of a rehash of the first, which did a fairly amusing job of sending up the "Airport" series of disaster movies. The sequel concerns the first lunar shuttle to fly out of a commercial air terminal. Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty and Peter Graves again star.

Young Doctors in Love (ABC Friday at 9 p.m.) is a freewheeling, gleefully raunchy 1982 comedy that's lots closer to "Porky's" than to "The Hospital" and which marks the theatrical feature debut of TV veteran Garry Marshall.

Sydney Pollack's Absence of Malice (ABC Saturday at 8:30 p.m.) offers an astringent look at contemporary journalistic practices. Written by former newspaperman Kurt Luedtke, it creates an absolutely authentic newsroom atmosphere only to depict an ambitious reporter (played as persuasively as possible by Sally Field) as being so naive as to defy credibility. Field has been duped into placing an innocent Paul Newman (excellent in his dry ice-cold rage) at the center of a murder investigation. Luckily, Absence of Malice is absorbing in spite of itself.

Selected evening cable fare: The Red Balloon (Z Sunday at 6, Monday at 8:30); The Corn Is Green (1979) (Movie Channel Sunday at 7); Down and Out in Beverly Hills (Movie Channel Sunday at 9); After Hours (Z Sunday at 9); One Trick Pony (Lifetime Monday at 6); Who's That Knocking at My Door? (Bravo Monday at 9); Le Petit Theatre de Jean Renoir (Z Tuesday at 7); Mean Streets (Bravo Tuesday at 8:30); Year of the Dragon (Movie Channel Tuesday at 9); Les Carabiniers (Bravo Wednesday at 6:30); The Pope of Greenwich Village (Showtime Wednesday at 9:30); The Red Badge of Courage (Showtime Thursday at 6); The Elephant Man (Movie Channel Thursday at 6:30); The Hidden Fortress (Bravo Thursday at 8); Mike's Murder (Movie Channel Thursday at 9); The Sure Thing (Showtime Saturday at 6); Trouble in Mind (Z Saturday at 7); The Shanghai Gesture (A&E Saturday at 9); Salvador (HBO Saturday at 9); Desert Hearts (Z Saturday at 9).

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