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French-born director Eric Valli, a photographer, writer, and documentarian who has lived in Nepal since 1983, sets his first dramatic feature in his adoptive homeland. To the extent that Himalaya exposes us to a spectacular terrain (Nepal’s remote, mountainous Dolpo region) and an ancient culture (a blend of Indian Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism) we might otherwise never witness, the film is undeniably effective. But its fictional narrative, on which Valli collaborated with Olivier Dazat, diminishes the movie’s impact.

Each year, inhabitants of the high plateaus near the Tibetan border drive yak caravans to the lowlands of the South, where they trade salt for grain. In Himalaya’s opening sequence, Tinle (Thinlen Lhondup), an elderly chieftain, learns of the death of his son Lhakpa, who had succeeded him as tribal head. Tinle wrongly blames Karma (Gurgon Kyap), a young Dolpopan leader, for this loss and forbids him to command the forthcoming caravan. Proud and grieving, Tinle insists on resuming leadership of the annual journey, until his grandson Tsering (Karma Wangiel) comes of age.

Rebellious Karma defies the old man by setting off with a caravan of younger villagers prior to the date determined by ancient ritual. Adhering to tradition, Tinle subsequently departs with the rest of his people, including his widowed daughter-in-law, Pema (Lhakpa Tsamchoe); his younger son; Tsering; and the village elders. These rival expeditions threaten the community’s unity, initiating a schism resolved in a life-threatening blizzard.

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Superbly photographed by Eric Guichard and Jean-Paul Meurisse, Himalaya contains some of the most striking images ever filmed. From the title-credit sequence of yaks emerging from russet dust to the climactic snowscapes that entrap the caravans, each widescreen shot dazzles the eyes. The film is filled with intriguing ethnological details, ranging from arcane religious rituals to the strategies of survival in such a forbidding environment.

But the plot staged in this uncommonly compelling setting is disappointingly conventional, a familiar epic tale of generational conflicts and male rivalries. In a misguided attempt to imbue his work with universal appeal, Valli imposes elements of Western quest sagas ranging from Homer to Hollywood cattle-drive movies. Despite the eloquent faces of the performers (only one of whom, Tsamchoe, previously acted professionally), the characters are stereotypical, and the story’s uplifting denouement is pat and unquestioningly reaffirms ancient superstitions. The screenplay’s sparse dialogue, sprinkled with such risible lines as “My yak is getting cold,” fails to enliven the predictability.

Well worth seeing as a travelogue, Himalaya falls short as a work of art. One leaves it wishing that Valli had resisted the impulse to contrive a secondhand, pseudo-universal fiction and, instead, offered us a documentary that delved deeper into this isolated region and its resilient inhabitants.

Hollywood must be even more insular than Dolpo. How else can one explain why two major female stars and tens of millions of dollars were squandered on America’s Sweethearts, a lumbering, laugh-free screenplay by Billy Crystal and Peter Tolan?

A toothless Tinseltown satire, America’s Sweethearts purports to puncture overinflated Hollywood egos but turns out to be a manifestation of the vanity that it mocks. Catherine Zeta-Jones and John Cusack play Gwen Harrison and Eddie Thomas, a husband-and-wife acting team who have co-starred in nine romantic hit movies. Gwen’s fling with Hector (Hank Azaria), an Antonio Banderas-like Spanish actor, has shattered her relationship with Eddie. Press agent Lee Phillips (Crystal) is stuck with publicizing the pair’s final project, a task complicated by their bitter estrangement and the project’s temperamental, nonconformist director, Hal Weidman (Christopher Walken), who refuses to allow studio heads to view the film prior to its premiere. Lee’s solution is to arrange a press-junket weekend at a posh Hyatt resort (a blatant product placement) and to enlist Gwen’s factotum sister, Kiki (Julia Roberts), to help him sustain the illusion that the screen lovers, who have been strong-armed into attending the event, are still on speaking terms. Lee’s job becomes even more difficult when Eddie and Kiki unexpectedly find themselves drawn to each other.

Hollywood provides an easy target for self-spoofing: Recall Bombshell, Sullivan’s Travels, and Singin’ in the Rain. Those satires worked because they were wittily written and deftly directed. But Crystal and Tolan’s leaden screenplay, stocked with charmless, narcissistic characters, stoops to dick jokes for guffaws that never materialize, and Roth’s stiff direction is as effervescent as a watched pot.

Oblivious to the fact that they are saddled with intractable material, the leading ladies are good sports about sending up their screen personas. Reversing her glamorous Pretty Woman image, Roberts schlumps about in dowdy duds and a makeshift hairdo, and, in flashbacks, dons a body-swelling fat suit. Zeta-Jones, caked in chalky vampire makeup and stuffed into form-fitting gowns, all too believably indulges in grating, divalike behavior. Cusack, an accomplished character actor, lacks the charisma to be convincing as a matinee idol. Prune-faced Crystal, outfitted with a scruffy beard and an I’m-not-balding teased mini-Afro, spouts wheezy Borscht Belt gags about rabbis and shares two repulsive scenes with a crotch-licking Doberman. Azaria’s Latin-lover role consists almost entirely of defending himself against charges of being underhung. Funny stuff.

As America’s Sweethearts’ producer, as well as co-scripter and name-above-the-title cast member, Crystal deserves most of the blame for the movie’s failure. But his co-stars are culpable, too, for placing themselves in his clumsy hands. Didn’t they see Mr. Saturday Night, Forget Paris, Fathers’ Day, or My Giant? Didn’t they read the screenplay before signing on? These days, Roberts and Zeta-Jones must have their pick of every post-pubescent, pre-geriatric female role offered by American movie moguls. That they chose to appear in this dud is a funnier Hollywood joke than anything in Crystal and Tolan’s screenplay. CP