New York — Good news! Local Hero is the most cheering film in a long while - a warm, winning comedy that's slightly daft and thoroughly charming from the wry beginning to the bittersweet finale. Its ideas are fresh, its performances are subtle, its style is sunny, friendly, and (aside from a few PG words and images) wholesome. In sum, a welcome addition to what's becoming a pretty good movie season.
The main character, played by the talented Peter Riegert, works for a huge Texas oil company. Because his name sounds Scottish (though his roots are Hungarian!), he gets the tricky assignment of visiting a sleepy fishing village in Scotland - and buying up the whole place, which will then be razed for a drilling operation.
Naturally, he expects a tough time from his Scottish hosts, whose families have dwelled there for centuries. But really, the burghers are delighted with the prospect of petrodollars falling into their pockets.
As they stall for time, hoping to bid up the price, the young American gets to know the town and the people in it. He thinks they're quite droll, and they think the same of him. But out of their mutual amusement, bemusement, and misunderstanding, there grows a delicate bond of affection that's as real and heartwarming as it is gentle and unspoken. Therein lies the heart and value of the movie.
Once the plot starts rolling, not a great deal happens in ''Local Hero'' except the gradual development of the characters and their relationships. There are a few small adventures, and even a romance. But this is a film about people, not events. Its main purpose is not driving the story toward a conclusion, but steeping us for nearly two hours in the lives and personalities of a quiet, quirky, and utterly engaging crowd. When the ending arrives, it's like saying goodbye to newfound friends.
It's hard to pin down just where ''Local Hero'' gets most of its charm. The secret seems to lie in the precise combination of slyly clever acting, a superbly understated script, and a fluid camera style that knows how to underline its points with visual whispers. Three cheers for filmmaker Bill Forsyth, who wrote and directed the movie. And three more for the extraordinary cast that backs Riegert up, from Burt Lancaster - at the top of his form, as he was in ''Atlantic City'' - to the splendid Scottish performers who round out the show.
Incidentally, filmmaker Forsyth is the man who gave us ''Gregory's Girl'' recently, and producer David Puttnam was also responsible for ''Chariots of Fire'' not long ago. How nice that the makers of those popular but overrated offerings have now lived up to their talents in the fullest way, sending us a thoroughgoing delight. Chat with Scorsese
The walls and shelves of Martin Scorsese's loft are decorated with cultural miscellany - a shot of Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones, a poster for ''The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,'' a quotation from ''The Sweet Smell of Success,'' artworks with biblical themes, framed photos of ''doo-wop'' rock groups. Books, from history to ghost stories, line one wall. The TV set carries a scrawled warning not to fiddle with the cable apparatus, which has evidently been fine-tuned to high Scorsesian standards.
With its mixture of art objects and pop souvenirs, it's a good place to interview the energetic director of such controversial films as ''Raging Bull'' and '''Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore,'' as well as ''The King of Comedy,'' his flawed but critically well-received new offering. Like his movies - he usually calls them ''pictures'' - his ideas and enthusiasms are too restless for the usual pigeonholes to contain. They veer between high aesthetics and funky entertainment, sometimes joining the two in startling combinations that variously thrill, puzzle, and repel.
Scorsese claims little understanding of why his challenging, personal films have found large and eager audiences. ''I didn't think anyone would come to 'Taxi Driver,' and I didn't think 'Mean Streets' would even get released,'' he admits, ruefully smiling at his penchant for ''kamikaze filmmaking.'' Success has taken him by surprise. ''I just make the pictures,'' he says - and if moviegoers cheer, it's a nice extra, but secondary to the self-expression that's his main objective.
His latest opus, though, is an exception. For once, the modest Scorsese was sure he had a hit on his hands when he finished ''The King of Comedy,'' with Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis. ''When we previewed it, people laughed right away,'' he says, ''and some of the reviews have really picked up what we were trying to get across. I think it's a good picture - not just for me, but for people.''
What was he trying to get across? A lot more, it turns out, than just telling the tale of a would-be comedian who kidnaps a talk-show host and demands TV ''air time'' as ransom.
''I tried to put a lot of subtle things into the style,'' says the filmmaker in the snappy, staccato tone that's one of his personal trademarks. ''I wanted to build layer upon layer in the image itself, not by moving the camera or being flashy. I tried to do things inside the frame, in the eyes and faces of the actors and actresses.''
He was also fascinated with the subject matter of the script, written by former critic Paul D. Zimmerman. Like the TV-host character in the film, Scorsese himself is hounded by would-be collaborators who dog his tracks and tie up his telephone. ''They push beyond the point of just pushing,'' he laments, ''and beyond what you think is normal. Sometimes their ideas are really interesting, but I'm too busy to think about them.'' Although it deals directly with this situation, ''The King of Comedy'' is not meant as an attack on such people, however. Just the opposite: The filmmaker identifies with them, remembering his own days as an eager beginner desperate for recognition. At the same time, he identifies with the successful talk-show host, a man who has finally achieved success like Scorsese's own.
''You have to see the right and wrong in both of them,'' the director says. ''When I first read the script in 1974, I didn't like it. I thought it was too thin and bleak, with one-dimensional characters. When I read it again, while we were working on 'Raging Bull,' I finally understood it.'' What made the difference? ''Five years of work, of ups and downs, of reaching certain goals in my life and being able to look more uncompromisingly at myself in my earlier days. There's some of me in both characters.''
In sum, Scorsese sees ''The King of Comedy'' as being ''like a reassessment of all those years of trying to make it - and then reaching some part of the goal, and looking back, and seeing how much you've given up for it. And wondering if it was worth it, and whether it's worthwhile to go on. Those are all questions I'm not quite sure of. . . .''
Scorsese's next film will be an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis's novel ''The Last Temptation of Christ,'' about the life of Jesus, with a screenplay by Paul Schrader. It will be a ''costume picture,'' but the director plans to keep it simple - ''no 'Cleopatra' stuff.'' Like the novel, Scorsese says, it will deal with ''the struggle for salvation - oneness with God, peace with yourself.'' In depicting Jesus, it will emphasize that ''the human side had to react in a human way, and had to resist temptations - political power, anger, violence, and so on - like anyone else. The story makes Jesus accessible. And so it makes those two very important Commandments accessible - loving God first, and loving your neighbor as yourself.''
Though this will be the first Scorsese film to deal directly with religious subject matter, he sees a religious dimension in many of his pictures. ''Mean Streets,'' he feels, is about the problem of ''how to live a good life, ethically, when you're surrounded by a rough world - which is a microcosm of the world we all live in.'' The prize-fight drama ''Raging Bull'' is also about ''a character reaching for some sort of salvation, without necessarily realizing he's doing it.''
So the new movie will be about ''everything the other pictures were about,'' and more so. It could also mark another turning point in Scorsese's work. He feels ''Raging Bull'' was ''the culmination of my life and what I knew about films up to that point.'' The current ''King of Comedy'' is a ''transition to another set of goals.'' The forthcoming ''Last Temptation,'' he says, will ''get to the basics, like wiping the slate clean so I can begin again in new directions. It's time for me to start learning from the work I do. Not necessarily how to make films, but how to live life in the best possible way. . . .'' 14-year perspective
Warren Sonbert showed up for a ''Cineprobe'' program at the Museum of Modern Art here the other day, presenting a pair of films made 14 years apart. It made a nice summary of Sonbert's career, showing how his style has evolved.
The more recent of the two, ''Noblesse Oblige,'' compiles footage shot on the run in a number of cities. Instead of a plot, there's a dense and fast-moving sequence of contrasting shapes, colors, and textures, glued together by visual rhymes and rhythms. One theorist calls this ''polyvalent montage.'' OK, but it's also lots of fun, and sometimes quite moving, as when the film abruptly ends with a woman walking away from the camera (and us, and the rest of the world) with what might be an attitude of quiet exasperation.
Like some other moments, this one was staged by Sonbert, indicating a new tendency toward ''drama'' in his work; and the absence of a sound track reflects his current determination to concentrate entirely on visual elements.
In all, it's quite a contrast with ''The Bad and the Beautiful,'' a 1967 work that looks as fresh today as it did then, though there's now a strong nostalgia element in the clothes and appearances of the performers, as well as in the rock-and-roll accompaniment. Unlike the heavily edited ''Noblesse Oblige,'' which took three years to make, this is a freewheeling collection of portraits and character sketches, edited ''in the camera'' as it was being shot. It's a lark, but it's still stimulating to look at years later - which demonstrates the sense of structure and purpose that raises Sonbert's deceptively simple art above the level of mere diary-keeping or home moviemaking.
His next project, he says, will deal with women's liberation. It's something to look forward to. Unsettling debut
In a bleak sort of way, ''You Are Not I'' is a powerful film. Running about 50 minutes, which is just right for what it has to say, it uses spare black-and-white images to unfold its story of a disturbed woman who finds her way out of a mental institution, visits an unsympathetic relative, and eventually resolves her condition - along with the movie itself - in a manner as chilling as it is enigmatic. The movie, having its theatrical premiere at the Public Theater in New York, marks a strong if unsettling debut for filmmaker Sara Driver, who adapted the tale (with Jim Jarmusch) from a story by Paul Bowles.