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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

1 December

Military Abolition Day, Costa Rica

On this day every year, the people of Costa Rica celebrate Día de la Abolición del Ejército (Military abolition day), as a reminder of the day in 1948 when President José Figueres Ferrer got rid of the country’s armed forces, in particular the standing army. Unusual in itself, this act was all the more remarkable when it is considered that Ferrer was a general who had just led an army to victory in the 44 day civil war in Costa Rica, which had been precipitated by the parliament refusing to accept that the opposition leader, Otilio Ulate, had won the election. Ferrer’s army toppled the government and president and he installed himself, not Ulate, as president of a military junta. The following year, having abolished the military in the interim, he oversaw the election of a new assembly and the drafting of a new constitution before standing down – at which point he handed power to Ulate. Costa Rica is one of very few countries that has no standing army. It has a small security force – civil guard, border patrol and so on – and spends the money it would have spent on the military on education and culture. In case of war, the United States has pledged to supply troops.

Monsters (2010, dir: Gareth Edwards)

It’s not what it is, it’s the way that writer/director Gareth Edwards does it that makes Monsters so good. It’s your basic travelogue love story… with monsters. The Clark Gable/Claudette Colbert classic It Happened One Night seems to be a reference point – she’s a swell, he’s an oik, a journalist seconded by daddy to get his rich kid daughter out of danger. So off he goes to a foreign land, picks her up, and then off they go, heading for the border, talking as they go, getting closer to each other, then bucking back a bit, encountering danger and getting close again. It’s shot handheld, Cloverfield style, with Edwards wafting in just a touch of CGI here and there to add the monster element. Which is how everything is handled – extremely delicately, nothing overdone. Its worldview is similarly competent – there is no real discussion of who the monsters are or where they’re from or what they do; this is a world in which monsters are a fact and everyone has got used to them. The only thing everyone is discussing is the Wall that is being built. Will it be enough to keep the monsters out of the US? The film is shot in Costa Rica but is supposedly set in Mexico, so it’s tempting to see the Wall as allegorical, and the monsters as the wave of immigrants ready to broach the border. But if that is Edwards’s suggestion, he keeps that on the down-low too. Considering how absurdly overblown most films of this sort can and do get – think where a Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer version would have gone – the low-key nature of Monsters can at times seem almost funny, as if someone’s having a joke. If it is a joke then the actors, Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, are in on it, delivering performances so dialled down that they threaten to disappear. That was deliberate, right?

Why Watch?

  • The film that got Edwards the 2014 Godzilla gig
  • Costa Rica’s lush tropical scenery
  • A textbook example of turning a limited budget to advantage
  • The actors fell in love and got married in real life – big aaah

Monsters – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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