Helen Mirren and Friends in Taylor Hackford's 'Love Ranch'

Your weekly guide to the world of independent film returns, under the stewardship of a man who endured a very challenging month, thus putting me in a perfect mood to shut up and write about summer movie alternatives.

As counter-programming to the latest virginal Twilight installment and a live-action children's fantasy, Taylor Hackford's legal prostitution drama Love Ranch (pictured above), starring Helen Mirren, opens in 11 theaters today. In real life, the star and director are a married couple, so Hackford has been sharing how much he enjoys directing his wife in love scenes with strangers and Mirren has been casually naked in a bath tub photo shoot. It's a good strategy; unfortunately, the reviews have not been kind, proving that flashing your breasts and talking about sex will only take you so far (?!).

In their third week of release, two flicks are expanding: Cyrus, a comedy starring John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, and Jonah Hill, goes from 17 to 77 theaters, while The Killer Inside Me (AKA The One Where Jessica Alba's Face Gets Smashed) jumps from 4 to 17 theaters. Cyrus, obviously, should draw much better; Fox Searchlight has been teasing it out with a fair amount of marketing as well as advance screenings. On the other hand, IFC must figure that moody indie fans are curious to see what the Killer fuss is about -- and to escape from a sun-drenched holiday weekend. Pale skin prefers darkened movie theaters.

Also expanding, but in smaller degrees, are the almost universally acclaimed drama Winter's Bone and the pesky doc Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. The latter flick I have seen; it's a personality profile that provides compelling viewing.

After the jump: Recent distribution deals and upcoming film festivals.
'Life, Above All'Distribution Deals. Sony Pictures Classics picked up all North American rights to Oliver Schmitz's Life, Above All, reports indieWIRE. The film is described in the article as "a suspense-filled drama about a young girl in South Africa who fights to rescue the people she loves."

David Hudson of Mubi hunted down a few reviews from Cannes, where the film was an official selection in the Un Certain Regard section, as well as the trailer. The trailer begins on an earnest, stereotypical note (African women singing, a sweaty schoolroom) but shows promise (in the mood and music) of being something more than a routine drama about AIDS. Khomotso Manyaka (pictured) stars as Chanda, 12, who must hold her family together after her younger sister dies from the disease. Distribution plans have not yet been revealed; does Sony Classics feel strongly enough to fit it into their fall release schedule, which is always weighted toward serious awards contenders?

On the documentary side of things, Bhutto has been acquired by First Run Features, which plans a November theatrical release in North America (per indieWIRE). Directed by Duane Baughman and Johnny O'Hara, Bhutto tells the story of its title subject, Benazir Bhutto, identified as "the first woman in history to lead a Muslim nation." The film debuted at Sundance in January; our own Monica Bartyzel saw it at Hot Docs and observed: "The film clearly and engagingly outlines the creation of Pakistan, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's rule of the country in the '70s, and how his daughter Benazir became an anomaly of the Muslim world (and world at large) as Prime Minister in the '80s and '90s."

More acquisition news from indieWIRE can be found at this handy link.

Silverdocs 2010Festival Scene. Cinematical's Christopher Campbell provided great coverage of Silverdocs, reviewing Utopia in Four Movements, The Kids Grow Up and Monica & David, The Tillman Story, Oliver Stone's South of the Border, and Freakonomics, among others, and then wrapped the whole thing up in a great article (click through to identify the picture to the left).

AJ Schnack notes at All These Wonderful Things that, with both Silverdocs and the Los Angeles Film Festival wrapping, the documentary year is itself at a wrap point: "The films of the first half of the year have come to the end (or nearly have) of their festival runs. Nearly every major American documentary festival showcase has come and gone." He also says that, over the past five years, only one film "wasn't screened by this point in the year and went on to be nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar. So, chances are, we've already seen this year's five nominees." A startling thought, but it makes sense, since documentaries released in the fall have to compete with all the feature heavyweights for attention.

Returning to indieWIRE, they've posted a helpful preview of this month's upcoming festivals, notably Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic, Outfest in Los Angeles, and Michael Moore's Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan.

To add to that list, I'll plug one of my favorites, the Asian Film Festival of Dallas (AFFD), which has just posted their schedule, along with brief descriptions. The fest runs from July 23-29 in beautiful, sinfully hot Dallas, Texas, where I pray that the theaters will all have working air conditioners.