Damon Smith reviews the latest releases. This week: the battle between good and evil claims more lives in STAR WARS EPISODE VIII: THE LAST JEDI... and a lovable bull (voiced by John Cena) with a heart of gold tries to find his way home in the computer-animated fable FERDINAND.


FERDINAND (U, 106 mins) Animation/Drama/Comedy/Action. Featuring the voices of John Cena, Kate MacKinnon, Bobby Cannavale, David Tennant, Anthony Anderson, Peyton Manning, Katie Silverman, Miguel Angel Silvestre, Jeremy Sisto. Director: Carlos Saldanha.

Released: December 16 (UK & Ireland)

Bad things happen to inherently good computer-animated characters.

"It's a dog-eat-dog, bull-fight-bull, everybody-hate-goat world," laments one of the quirky, four-legged protagonists in director Carlos Saldanha's joyful coming-of-age story.

Based on the children's book The Story Of Ferdinand penned by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson, this entertaining if undemanding journey of self-discovery centres on a Spanish fighting bull, who prefers to smell the roses rather than stomp on them.

He refutes the laws of nature, which say he is destined to lock horns with a matador in the ring, and wants to be judged by the generosity in his heart not the potentially lethal power of his hooves.

Alas, creatures great and small are reluctant to see past his muscular physique.

"Where do you think the word 'bully' comes from?" chirps one terrified hedgehog.

Working from a linear script that repeatedly preaches open-mindedness and acceptance over prejudice and preconception, Ferdinand spins an engaging yarn that will happily stampede the affections of younger audiences.

Teenagers and parents may prove harder to wrangle in the absence of sophisticated humour and heart-tugging emotion to elevate the film into the bull pen of modern classics.

Ferdinand (voiced by John Cena) is raised at the Casa Del Toro alongside his hulking father Raf (Jeremy Sisto), who is selected to fight in the ring.

"I have to go, it's what every bull dreams of," beams the chest-puffing patriarch.

"Is it OK if it's not my dream?" nervously responds nature-loving Ferdinand.

When Raf fails to return, grief-stricken Ferdinand escapes his stable and runs away.

He is eventually adopted as an oversized pet by a girl called Nina (Katie Silverman) and her family.

During a visit to the local market, Ferdinand accidentally sits on a bee. A sharp sting causes him to rear up and locals flee in terror.

Police deem Ferdinand a public menace and, in a cruel twist of fate, he is returned to the Casa Del Toro, where he reunited with fellow bulls Valiente (Bobby Cannavale), Guapo (Peyton Manning) and Bones (Anthony Anderson), and a new addition, Angus (David Tennant).

An old goat called Lupe (Kate MacKinnon) is enlisted as Ferdinand's trainer so he is fit to face legendary matador El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre).

"I've been waiting for this moment my whole flea-bitten, tin-chewing life," bleats Lupe.

Ferdinand unfolds at a trot rather than a gallop, complemented by colourful visuals and lively vocal performances.

MacKinnon sinks her teeth into the film's broadly comic role, chewing on amusing one-liners while Cena plays his misunderstood central character for pathos.

Action set pieces are orchestrated with assurance and minimum on-screen violence.

Animals may be blessed with sharp horns, capable of goring a man to death, but they are always aimed an inanimate objects.


Also released...


Released: December 14 (UK & Ireland)

The battle between good and evil intensifies in the next chapter of the sprawling space saga. At 152 minutes, Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is comfortably the longest instalment of the franchise, setting up gasp-inducing shocks in the concluding salvo of this trilogy, which is due for release in December 2019. Hang on to your lightsabres...

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) welcomes Rey (Daisy Ridley) to his island retreat and he agrees to train her for the war that looms on the horizon against Snoke (Andy Serkis), Supreme Leader of the First Order, and his vengeful protege Ren (Adam Driver).

Rey's raw, untapped powers terrify Luke and he begins to realise the pivotal role she will play in shaping the destiny of the rebellion - or perhaps bringing about its downfall.

Meanwhile General Leia (Carrie Fisher) is still reeling from her tragic loss and First Order stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) confronts his inglorious past when he comes face to face with his former superior, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie).

Heart-breaking sacrifices must be made in the pursuit of lasting peace but with the balance of power delicately poised, one reckless decision could prove fatal.


Released: December 15 (UK, selected cinemas)

Documentary film-maker Sonia Kronlund, who has been focusing her lens on the atrocities in Afghanistan for more than two decades, finds a glimmer of hope amidst the rubble with this life-affirming portrait of one man, who is bringing joy to the masses in a time of bitter conflict.

Salim Shaheen is an actor, producer and director with more than 110 film credits to his name over the past 30 years. This self-anointed "Prince of Nothingwood" smuggles his low-budget pictures into communities around Afghanistan and delights locals with B-Movie efforts full of creativity and invention.

Kronlund's film goes behind the scenes of Shaheen's conveyor belt of projects and celebrates one man's unstinting defiance of threats from the Taliban. The documentary also chronicles Shaheen's growing popularity as a beacon of hope in a time of fierce oppression.


Released: December 15 (UK, selected cinemas)

A fame-hungry actor is granted all of his wishes in a provocative Brazilian drama, which marks the feature directorial debut of Daniel Rezende.

Augusto Mendes (Vladimir Brichta) watched in awe as his beloved mother earned the adulation of audiences by performing on stage. Now he craves the same acceptance from the public but his route to stardom is unclear.

As a single parent to a young son, Gabriel (Caua Martins), Augusto bears the heavy weight of responsibility for putting food on the table and he dutifully accepts thankless roles in soap operas and soft porn films to pay the bills.

By chance, Augusto is cast as Bingo, the clown-faced host of a new children's TV show, which becomes a monster hit. As part of the contract, Augusto is forbidden from revealing Bingo's true identity so while the quick-witted clown becomes a pop culture icon, the man behind the make-up remains unknown.

Augusto reacts by indulging to excess in alcohol, drugs and women, which jeopardises his relationship with his son. The furious tug of war between fame and family threatens to tear Augusto apart.

SHOT CALLER (15, 121 mins)

Released: December 15 (UK, selected cinemas)

A good man, who is dealt a bad hand by Lady Luck, must make tough choices to endure a prolonged prison sentence in director Ric Roman Waugh's gritty drama.

Doting family man Jacob Harlon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has a beautiful wife called Kate (Lake Bell), a son Joshua (Jonathon McClendon) and a close-knit circle of loyal friends.

He is involved in a fatal traffic accident, which results in the death of his best buddy Tom (Max Greenfield). Jacob faces manslaughter charges and finds himself behind bars, where he must align himself with men of violence and intimidation if he is to see his family again.

As part of this transformation, Jacob severs ties to his family and learns to express himself with his fists. He is subsequently involved in a vicious prison riot and Jacob's sentence is extended to 10 years.

When he is finally released, Jacob bears little resemblance to the mild-mannered man of the previous decade and he rebuilds his life under the care of parole officer Kutcher (Omari Hardwick). However, ghosts of the past continue to haunt Joshua.

THE UNSEEN (15, 106 mins)

Released: December 15 (UK, selected cinemas)

A grief-stricken couple open broken hearts to a kindly stranger in director Gary Sinyor's psychological thriller. Will Shields (Richard Flood) and his wife Gemma (Jasmine Hyde) are devastated by the death of their son in an accident and they huddle together for physical and emotional support.

While Gemma is struck down by crippling panic attacks, which impair her vision, Will becomes convinced that he is hearing the voice of his dead boy, who is calling to him from beyond the grave.

As the marriage reaches breaking point, Will and Gemma accept a generous invitation from new friend Paul Deitch (Simon Cotton) to stay at his Lake District retreat. The country air and seclusion should help the couple to focus on their mutual loss and rebuild shattered trust.

However, Will continues to be haunted by his son's voice and believes he must return home to be closer to the deceased. Meanwhile, Gemma gravitates towards caring Paul and reaches out to him in her hour of greatest need.


Released: December 20 (UK & Ireland)

More than 20 years after the family-friendly fantasy adventure Jumanji starring Robin Williams, Jake Kasdan directs an action-packed new instalment, which pays affectionate tribute to the late actor while updating the narrative to the 21st century digital realm.

Computer gaming nerd Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff) is forced to serve detention alongside three fellow students: football jock Anthony Johnson (Ser'Darius Blain) aka Fridge, cheerleader Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman) and painfully shy bookworm Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner).

As part of their punishment, the teenagers clean out the school's dusty basement, where they stumble upon an old Jumanji video game.

Without warning, Spencer, Fridge, Bethany and Martha are sucked into the game where they take on the guise of four heroic avatars: respectively, strapping archaeologist Dr Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), wisecracking zoologist Franklin Finbar (Kevin Hart), quirky cartographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black) and acrobatic fighting machine Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan).

The students realise the only way to escape the machine is to complete the various levels of the game. That means the players will have to overcome fearsome adventurer John Hardin (Bobby Cannavale), who has been possessed by the poisonous power of a green crystal, as well as the carnivorous denizens of the jungle.

PITCH PERFECT 3 (12A, 93 mins)

Released: December 20 (UK & Ireland)

Pitch Perfect 2 overtook School Of Rock to become the highest grossing musical comedy of all time so expectations are high for the third and concluding chapter in the franchise.

Trish Sie assumes directorial duties for Pitch Perfect 3, which opens after the Barden Bellas have left college and gone their separate ways. It's a hard knock life without the unstinting support of the sorority and Beca (Anna Kendrick), Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) and co desperately miss their fellow musical minxes.

When an opportunity arises for the Bellas to reform in order to take part in an overseas tour with the United Service Organisations (USO), which entertains members of the United States Armed Forces, the limber ladies don't hesitate.

Beca and Fat Amy trade aca-hugs with the rest of the gang including Chloe (Brittany Snow), Stacie (Alexis Knapp), Jessica (Kelley Jakle), Cynthia-Rose (Ester Dean), Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), Flo (Chrissie Fit) and softly spoken beatboxer Lilly (Hana Mae Lee).

The Bellas are crestfallen to discover that their fellow performers on the tour don't just sing beautifully, they also play their own instruments.

Sardonic commentators John Smith (John Michael Higgins) and Gail Abernathy-McKadden (Elizabeth Banks) unleash a barrage of pitch-slapping putdowns as the Bellas realise they will have to aca-dapt once again to make themselves heard.