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Smoke Signals

Flick Chick

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Mark April 25 on your calendar. That's the day Merrill Jarvis expects to find out if the Nickelodeon, recently vacated by Hoyts, will be his. He's currently in negotiations with Pizzagalli Properties, the company that owns the building. If successful, Jarvis plans "a facelift inside and out" -- as well as a name change -- for the downtown Burlington theater.

He envisions booking a mix of art-house and foreign fare along with more cerebral mainstream releases. "It's not a bang-bang, shoot-'em-up type of place," says Jarvis, who is president and COO of the Merrill Theatre Corporation. Perhaps it's a good omen that April 25 is also his birthday.

Meanwhile, Jarvis is about to launch an innovative campaign in the local movie meccas he already operates. Ethan Allen Cinemas on North Avenue and Merrill's Showcase on Williston Road are among seven theaters statewide slated to show satirical anti-smoking trailers along with the commercials and previews that precede every feature film.

The three 30-second spots were created by KSV Communications, a Queen City public-relations firm, to counter Hollywood's relentless glamorization of tobacco. "We did this project for the Vermont Department of Health, which is one of our clients," explains Mike Hannigan, a copywriter who created the ads with senior art director Seth Drury. "National research indicates that if you show kids an anti-smoking message before a film with smoking in it, they're much less likely to start."

The ads -- short skits with professional thespians from Boston and New York -- depict an acting coach yelling at her class for their poor cigarette skills, a screenwriter pitching a script that includes smoking angels, and a crew member proudly displaying props such as ashtrays. "They take a farcical look at the movie development process," Hannigan says. "We use a very tongue-in-cheek tone to present a serious issue."

Merrill Jarvis is equally committed to helping teens resist nicotine. "It's a bad, bad habit. But the days of Humphrey Bogart or Bette Davis are long gone," Jarvis says of the time when nobody questioned stars who blithely puffed away both on and off the screen.

Now, at least, some people are insisting the medium carry a dissenting message.

Hilary Birmingham apparently be-lieves that messages of any kind should remain subtle. Her debut drama, Tully

, is on the schedule Thursday and Saturday at the Green Mountain Film Festival in Montpelier. This is what Hollywood likes to call a "dirt" or "fly-over" project, meaning it takes place somewhere between Los Angeles and New York.

The locale is a Nebraska farm, where a laconic father and his two twentysomething sons have been struggling with solitude since the apparent death of their wife/mother 15 years earlier. They have trouble connecting emotionally with each other and with the townspeople, especially females, who care about them.

Tully (Anson Mount) is a local Lothario, however. He loves 'em and leaves 'em with regularity. His womanizing is so entrenched that the lad doesn't recognize the more salt-of-the-earth qualities of his neighbor Ella (Julianne Nicholson). This sounds sudsy, but Birmingham refrains from stating the obvious. Revelations don't necessarily become enormous upheavals, and even less savory characters are treated with respect. As Ella says at one point, "Everyone counts."

Everyone really counts in James Nachtwey's worldview. He is the subject of War Photographer

, which should resonate with those who feel more sorrow than "shock and awe" about the battle for Iraq. The 2001 documentary, at the festival this Wednesday and Friday, profiles an American artist who has devoted himself to capturing images of conflict.

Nachtwey's career spans more than two decades in hot spots like Nicaragua, Rwanda, South Africa, Kosovo and Palestine. When not covering wars, the Dartmouth College alum heads for impoverished countries such as Indonesia to turn his camera on the wretched of the earth. Remarkably, this absorbing film by Christian Frei follows Nachtwey on many of those harrowing journeys.

A humanist with "a library of suffering in his head," as his former German lover observes, the shutterbug is seen dodging bullets and weeping from tear gas while getting his pictures. But unlike the gung-ho journalist "embeds" who have been traveling toward Baghdad with the U.S. military, Nachtwey refuses to glorify violence. "Photography can be a powerful ingredient in the antidote to war," he says. "It can be a form of protest.

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