Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year!

"To all my friends ..."


Movie credit: Barfly.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

God's Country.

With America's war against violent jihad entering its 7th year, Christmas just passing, and the political primary season heating up, religion is a significant issue today. Right on time, Gallup recently published a poll on American religiosity and found a lot of it. (Here.)

My own religious views are wildly ambivalent. I was raised Catholic but the allure of science and a Religious Studies degree from a Catholic University helped to drive me into atheism. (Talk about your unintended consequences.) I climbed out of the angry hate pit of atheism some time ago and have since lapsed into a kind of agnostic deism. Science sufficiently answers my nuts and bolts questions about the universe but provides no answers at all to moral questions. Religion provides those answers.

So put me down as a religious doubter who is unable to believe but who sees moral value in certain religious beliefs. Dennis Prager would say that I'm living off the moral capital provided by the religious upbringing foisted on me by my parents. In any event, I never attend religious services. That puts me in a distinct minority in the United States, whose citizens are much more certain about their religious beliefs than I. But enough about me.

The unsurprising results from Gallup's poll show that 82 percent of Americans identify with a Christian religion. That 82 percent includes Mormons, who may or may not be Christian, depending on your theological point of view. 11 percent identify with no religion and 2 percent didn't answer, which, using simple math, leaves 5 percent professing other religious beliefs.

About 40 to 45 percent report having attended a religious service in the past 7 days. (The precise number is not given in the linked story.) That low 40s percentage is described in the linked story as being "remarkably stable" over the years. The current percentage is down from a high of 49 percent in the 1950s but higher than the lowest point of 37 percent at the end of the Depression.

Certain trend lines are down indicating some loss of intensity in religious faith over the years. For instance, 56 percent now say religion is "very important" in their lives compared to over 70 percent in the 1950s and 1960s.

Yet, overall, the percentage of those professing religious belief, specifically Christian, remains pretty high.
"To summarize, more than 8 in 10 Americans identify with a religion and 8 out of 10 say that religion is at least fairly important in their daily lives; more than 8 out of 10 say they attend church at least 'seldom'; and again more than 8 out of 10 identify with a Christian religion."

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas And Happy Holy Days.


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Monday, December 24, 2007

Science Fiction Movies And TV Sounds Quiz

The site,, has a quiz on sounds heard in classic science fiction movies and television shows. (Here.) I scored 13 correct out of 14 for a score as follows:

"Your Score : 93 credits You're an extreme sci-fi geek! You're probably wearing your very own homemade TRON costume right now!"
Like there's something wrong with that!


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A Very Second Amendment Christmas

Christmas came a day early this year. The waiting period for the latest addition to my Second Amendment Disaster Preparedness Kit expired this afternoon. (To see the prior additions click here, here, here, and here.)

It's a Mosin-Nagant Model 1944 rifle. Notice the neat attached bayonet. Very useful for the zombie apocalypse. When the ammo runs out you can still poke the zombies' brains out.

This particular rifle was manufactured in the Soviet Union in 1946. Since the fall of communism former East Bloc firearms are plentiful and cheap. This one came from Big 5 sporting goods store for $89.00. Yet another benefit of America's victory in the Cold War.



Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Birds Of Paradise: Part 17.

This little fella is dive bombing over the pigeon spikes on top of the fence for the platform feeder. Say it with me now, "Ahhh, how cuuute!"

The ominous looking bird below is a scrub jay diving from the tree next door for the peanuts spread out on my backyard lawn. It's good to see the scrub jays returning. The crows drove them off for a while but more and more the jays are making a comeback.

And finally there's this fat little guy caught stuffing his beak so full the seeds don't fit. America's obesity epidemic has gone avian.


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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Heavenly Bodies Of 2007.

The Bad Astronomer has compiled his annual list of best astronomy pictures and posted the results at his blog. He writes:
"Astronomy is arguably the most beautiful of the sciences. I’m biased, of course, but it’s nearly impossible to gaze upon a picture of a galaxy, a moon, a nebula, and not see in it something compellingly artistic. Sometimes it’s the color, sometimes the shape, and sometimes it’s the knowledge that we can understand the subject of the picture itself.

"Science doesn’t take away from the beauty of nature. It enhances it, multiplies it."
To which, I can only say, "amen."

Go to to view his compilation of beautiful photos taken of creation in 2007. (Here.)

My favorite is his number 5, the photo of Jupiter's moons, Io and Europa, taken by the New Horizons Pluto Probe in March 2007. The photo is below, courtesy of NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. (Here.)


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Newsflash From Iraq: Not All Shiites Are Theocrats.

The Associated Press publishes a story today about Iraqi militia leader Moktada Al-Sadr going back to theology school.
"Al-Sadr currently has the relatively low title of hojat al-Islam, which leaves his supporters no choice but to seek religious guidance from top establishment clerics — many of whom al-Sadr sees as out of touch with common Iraqis and accuses of acquiescing to Washington's demands." (Here.)
The AP story only hints at the low regard in which Al-Sadr is held by most Iraqi Shiites. That Al-Sadr is viewed that way by most Iraqis is probably news to most Westerners. But anyone who has taken the time to find blogs written by Iraqis about their own country would have learned long ago that Al-Sadr does not enjoy much respect among most Iraqi Shiites. Here's an excerpt from a post on the blog IraqPundit from May 7, 2006.
"The other Moktada, the one known mostly to Shiite Iraqis, is a half-wit and a loser. He is certainly not a cleric, since he found his religious studies overwhelming, and abandoned them. On the other hand, he is almost certainly a cold-blooded murderer. His viciousness is matched only by his ignorance and his mumbling incoherence. His significance may be measured entirely by a following of thugs who are as vicious and stupid as he is. He is an impediment to the emergence of a decent and stable Iraq." (Here.)
The AP story also briefly touches on the Shiite doctrine of "wilayet al faqeeh," which is described in the story as a doctrine "which supports the right of clerical rule. The concept was adopted [by] Iran's Khomeini, but carries little support among Iraq's Shiite religious hierarchy." What the story doesn't say is that the doctrine, and the theocratic rule in Iran, is widely regarded as heretical in Shiism. Even among Iranian clerics the doctrine is not universally embraced. (Here.)

To its credit the Christian Science Monitor in 2004 published a story on the theological differences between Iranian and Iraqi Shiism over the doctrine of wilayet al faqeeh and how that mattered to the development of democracy in Iraq.
"A rare insight into Sistani's views on Iran's Wilayet al-Faqih system was posted on the Internet last week by an anonymous Sunni tribal leader who met with the reclusive Shiite cleric at his home in Najaf.

"'He does not believe in 'Wilayat al Faqeeh' as the clergy in Iran do.... He repeatedly stressed that religion has to be separated from government,' the letter said. 'He said that he firmly believed that the clergy should not interfere with the running of people's lives, with government or with administration. He had forbidden his followers from putting their noses into the state's affairs. He said that clearly and categorically (several times to stress the point!)'

"According to Sheikh Jalaleddine as-Saghir, Sistani's representative in Baghdad, the ayatollah recommends a multisectarian government for Iraq." (Here.)
It's not just nationalism that separates Iraqi Shiites from Iranian. They also differ in their view of the proper role of clerics in government. It's why Iraq's Shiite Ayatollah Al-Sistani continues to support democracy in Iraq. It's also why the United States has a chance to be influential in Iraq among Shiites despite Iran's presence next door.


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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Baseball's See No Evil Attitude About Steroids.

Padres CEO Sandy Alderson was asked at last night's annual season ticket holder meeting what the Padres will do to prevent the shame of drug use affecting the team. Alderson's answer reflects a big part of the problem that Major League Baseball has with the steroids issue.

He touted baseball's drug-testing policy as being the toughest in sports, except for the Olympics. Unfortunately for baseball, the only reason that policy is in effect is Congress stepped in and forced the issue. To Alderson's credit he acknowledged that fact. The Congressional hearings two years ago on steroids were a sight to behold. Major League Baseball executive and Player's Union representatives copped an attitude similar to the mob, basically telling Congress to butt out and mind its own business. (I wrote about this at my old blog Here.) Even sportswriters, who should be covering the sport as outsiders instead of defending the sport, took Congress to task. (Here.) Congress, who makes the rules in this country, won that round.

Alderson then said something absolutely unbelievable. He said there are a lot of allegations being thrown around about players using steroids but that "there is a great difference between suspicion and knowledge." With all due respect to Alderson that is a patronizing statement. We fans are not stupid. We may have willfully denied the evidence in front of our faces during the steroids era and believed all the stories about juiced baseballs and other reasons given for baseball's power-hitting surge. But our eyes have been opened by the Congressional hearings and specifically the disgusting spectacle two years ago of former baseball players trying to stonewall a congressional hearing. (Here.) Baseball needs to come clean about its problem and not try to hide the truth about its steroids history.

Alderson's statement is also embarrassing. How embarrassing that statement is will be revealed tomorrow when former Senator George Mitchell releases his report on steroids use in Major League Baseball. Reports today are that 74 players will be implicated in the report as having used performance-enhancing drugs.

It's quite clear to anybody with any observational skills at all that baseball has a serious problem with performance-enhancing drugs. Barry Bonds is the biggest cheater of them all and he is now baseball's all-time home run leader. The only reason he has that record is because Major League Baseball wimped out and did nothing to stop him. Kennesaw Mountain Landis wouldn't have allowed this to happen and neither would have Bart Giamatti.

Fans who care about baseball as America's national past time can only hope that the Mitchell report finally gives Selig the ammunition he needs to do what should have been done before. Impose a permanent lifetime ban on Barry Bonds. What's good enough for Shoeless Joe Jackson and Peter Rose, is good enough for Barry Bonds.

Baseball fans who really care about the integrity of the sport (a quaint phrase in this cynical era, I know) should also hope that Mitchell's former colleagues in Congress will also read the report. History has shown that only threats from Congress can prompt MLB and the player's union to come together and address the problem of performance-enhancing drugs.


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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Notable Quotables From Padres Annual Meeting.

-- Former Dodgers' employee Paul DePodesta started out his talk by saying that every other management person on stage with him has a specific role. His own role is to be "in charge of making sure we beat the Dodgers." Longtime Dodger hating Padres fans loved that one.

-- Padres announcer Ted Leitner asked Kevin Kouzmanoff to talk about how he handled his terrible first month of the season when he struggled at the plate and there was talk of sending him down to the minor leagues. Kouzmanoff gave a lot of credit to support from his teammates and then talked about how the hardest thing he endured was when the local paper did a headline that put multiple K's in Kouzmanoff's name after he had struck out more than once the night before. He said he "learned from that newspaper clipping not to read the newspaper."

His story reminded me of hearing former United States Attorney Carol Lam speak about how her husband used to get the newspaper before she had a chance to read it in the morning, and how he would cut out the articles that criticized her to protect her feelings.

Both these stories are reminders that those who do their jobs in public are real people with real feelings.

-- Former Dodgers pitcher Randy Wolf talked about playing against the Padres and said about coming to San Diego, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

-- But by far the best anecdote of the night came from Padres CEO Sandy Alderson after General Manager Kevin Towers announced to everybody that Kosuke Fukudome would not be playing for the Padres next year. Alderson said he had been in a meeting that morning when somebody asked him how to pronounce "that Japanese outfielder's last name." Alderson said that if the outfielder signed with the Padres, he'd pronounce it Foo-koo-dough-may, the way they pronounce it in Japan. But if he didn't sign with the Padres .... And then Alderson paused, said nothing more, let the crowd think about "Fukudome," sat back, and let the laughter roll over him.


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Padres Annual Meeting Miscellany

Building the major league team.

The San Diego Padres annual season ticket holder always provides an interesting insight into the team management's thoughts. Some of it has to be taken with a grain of salt. Two years ago Sandy Alderson talked about how confident the team was with Miguel Olivo at catcher. As it turns out, not confident enough to keep him. Last year Termel Sledge was touted as the next big thing in left field. Things didn't turn out quite as hoped with Sledge either.

Alderson asked the fans to "stick with us and be with us. We can't control the outcome but we can control the resources." He had some resources to crow about, too. Last year Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young were not tied down in multiyear deals. This year they are. Jake Peavy is close to being tied down as well. Greg Maddux is returning for another year. The infield is strong with Kevin Kouzmanoff and Khalil Greene returning with Gonzalez. Heath Bell showed himself to be a future closer should Trevor Hoffman falter.

Paul DePodesta described the Padres plans for "putting themselves into position to win each year." At the major league level the team is signing its core players to long-term deals: Young, Peavy, and Gonzalez, for example. The second strategy is to find undervalued players and trade for them: Bell, Scott Hairston, and Kouzmanoff, for example. DePodesta said nothing about going out and spending big bucks on major free agents as being part of the team's strategy for putting together a winner. That apparently remains something the Padres are not interested in pursuing.

At the minor league level, DePodesta described the team's strategy "building a culure of winning." He said the goals for the farm system are to bring prospects up from the minors and put them on the major league roster. He didn't say how that would be done.

He said the other strategies for the team were aggressively pursuing amateur draft picks and signing players with character as well as talent. On the international front, DePodesta said the team has "dramatically increased its signing bonus budget" and is opening a state of the art complex in the Dominican Republic.

World Baseball Classic and video replay.

Alderson announced that the World Baseball Classic wwould return to San Diego in 2009. He could not say whether the games at Petco Park would be finals or semifinals. He announced that limited video replay would probably be tested in the WBC as a prelude to using it in Major League Baseball. Alderson, who heads baseball's rules committee, said there is support for limited video replay even among umpires, who, as he put it, "are always one bad call away from infamy." Limited video replay is being considered for foul balls and homerun calls.


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Iguchi To Padres; Fukudome To Somewhere Else.

Tonight's annual meeting of the San Diego Padres season ticket holders brought good news and bad. Groans from the crowd greeted General Manager Kevin Towers' announcement that "let's just say Mr. Fukudome will not be playing on the West Coast." Towers announced the good news a few minutes later when he said that the Padres "reached an agreement with Tadahito Iguchi tonight."

We'll return to the bad news later. As for the good news, Towers did not state details of the Iguchi deal except to say it is for one year. He sees the one-year deal as providing a bridge to give prospect Matt Antonelli another year in the minor leagues before coming to the big leagues as the Padres second baseman.

The signing of second baseman Iguchi rounds out a very solid infield for the Padres with Kevin Kouzmanoff at third, Khalil Greene at short, and Adrian Gonzalez at first. Each of these players possesses superior offensive and defensive skills that will go a long way to helping the Padres maintain their competitive edge in the very difficult Western Division.

The rest of the team looks pretty solid as well with a strong pitching rotation of Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Greg Maddux, and Randy Wolf, who was on hand tonight and said would be ready for spring training. The bullpen has always been a Towers strength and next year should be no different with most of the staff returning.

Behind the plate Josh Bard and Michael Barrett, assuming no trades, will return for another season. Bard has performed consistently for the Padres, and although Barrett struggled in San Diego, his career stats are good.

Outfield remains a problem and it's a big one. Kosuke Fukudome's decision not to play for the Padres only makes matters worse. The Padres were hoping to sign him to fill their huge gap in center field where Mike Cameron has played. With a gift for understatement, Towers said "I gotta get to work tonight."

Apparently Cameron is still a possibility for next year. Towers said he had just had a very good conversation with Cameron's representative tonight. There is a lot of upside to Cameron as he is a premier center fielder who plays great defense and provides significant offense. The problem with Cameron, of course, is that he will miss all of spring training and the first month of the season while he serves a suspension for testing positive under Major League Baseball's drug testing program. Even if Cameron returns the team will need another player to stick in center field. Towers said that the Psdres had put some trades on the back burner while waiting for Fukudome to make a decision and those will move back to the front burner.

Towers did not say who is on the trading block and who the team is pursuing. He did say that he does not want to trade away hot prospects to fill the center field position. He specifically mentioned Chase Headley and Matt Antonelli as prospects he would not trade.

As for the corner outfield positions, Towers said Brian Giles will be back and Scott Hairston should see "a lot more playing time in left field." Towers also talked about the possibility of playing Headley in left to platoon with Hairston. He also floated the possibility of trying out second base super prospect Antonelli in center field. We should hope that something comes the Padres' way in a trade instead.


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Carnival Of Space XXXII.

The latest Carnival of Space with lots of space commentary is available at the Robot Guy blog. Go there by going here.



Monday, December 10, 2007

The Golden Compass Movie --- More Spiritual Than Not.

The controversial movie, The Golden Compass, opened this weekend and pulled in lots of money from audiences around the country despite calls for a boycott. No fan of boycotts but a fan of bargain matinees, five dollars of the gross, plus 50 cents, came from me.

The movie is controversial because Christian groups have advised parents not to let their kids see the movie due to its supposed anti-Christian message. The Catholic League called for the boycott, claiming the movie is anti-Catholic. The irony is that the movie appears to be developing a theme that rejects materialism and embraces a spiritual basis to human nature.

Perhaps the books on which the movie is based are worth all the fuss, but the movie seems pretty tame. Sure, the totalitarian organization that seeks to rule all the parallel worlds in the multiverse is named "the Magisterium," and Catholics will recognize the term because it is used to describe the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. But that's about as far as the supposed anti-Catholicism goes in the movie. By the way, a more daring choice, and more appropriate to our times, would have been to call the totalitarian organization "the Caliphate."

Certain themes in the movie do seem conventionally opposed to dogma and religious authority. There's a nascent theme developing that favors free inquiry into the truth and opposes authoritarian repression of knowledge. Another theme appears to involve suspicion of elites, who wish to live their lives as they please while telling others who don't know better how to live. These are hardly revolutionary or controversial ideas.

The most interesting idea in the movie involves the spiritual nature of humanity. The movie posits that souls are real and that only humans possess them. The twist is that in the parallel universe of The Golden Compass, a human's soul manifests itself in a spirit animal that accompanies its human everywhere. While a person is a child, the spirit animal changes shape, representing the unfinished nature of the child. Once a person becomes an adult, the spirit animal settles on a form that represents the soul of the person. (Wondering what one's own spirit animal would be if they existed in our universe is part of the fun of seeing this movie.)

These spirit animals are called "daemons," pronounced "demons." It's a bit cheeky to name human souls "demons," but that cheekiness amounts to little more than a finger in the eye to theological conventions and hardly worth the controversy.

What could be controversial is a developing theme that involves the spirit animals. The Magisterium is conducting experiments on children to cut the spiritual link between humans and their daemons. The Magisterium is conducting these experiments in the belief that it is for the children's own good to be freed from their daemons. For those of us who survived the 20th Century and its Communist totalitarian governments that sought to change human nature, destroy religion, and create a "New Soviet Man" this is a powerful theme.

It's ironic that Christian organizations oppose this movie and atheists have come to its defense. For it turns out that the good guys in the movie accept the spiritual nature of human beings and the necessity of humans remaining connected to their souls. The bad guys in the movie want to quarantine the soul and cut the connection between humans and their spiritual nature. If anything, this movie has an anti-secular theme. It will be interesting to see how this theme is developed in the sequels.


Republished once to correct final line.

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What Would Lincoln Do?

I've been listening lately to a lecture series on the political rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln. It's remarkable how much today's arguments over abortion echo the arguments made over slavery. It's also remarkable how far our country has changed in our understanding of the deference due to Supreme Court rulings that infringe on the sovereignty of the American people. Here's what Lincoln had to say in his First Inaugural Address.
"I do not forget the position assumed by some that constitutional questions are to be decided by the Supreme Court, nor do I deny that such decisions must be binding in any case upon the parties to a suit as to the object of that suit, while they are also entitled to very high respect and consideration in all parallel cases by all other departments of the Government. And while it is obviously possible that such decision may be erroneous in any given case, still the evil effect following it, being limited to that particular case, with the chance that it may be overruled and never become a precedent for other cases, can better be borne than could the evils of a different practice. At the same time, the candid citizen must confess that if the policy of the Government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made in ordinary litigation between parties in personal actions the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their Government into the hands of that eminent tribunal. Nor is there in this view any assault upon the court or the judges. It is a duty from which they may not shrink to decide cases properly brought before them, and it is no fault of theirs if others seek to turn their decisions to political purposes." (Here, emphasis added.)
After reading that, one can't help but wonder where Lincoln would stand today on the question of who decides whether or not marriage will be extended to same-sex couples --- the courts, the legislatures, or the voters.


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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

3D Glasses.

Sporting the 3D glasses from Beowulf. Okay, maybe they aren't that cool. The fitover look is appealing, don't you think? Ladies?


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Monday, December 03, 2007

Beowulf,The Corrupt, Beowulf The Hero.

The two most interesting and thought provoking movies I've seen this year are 300 and now Beowulf. Both are animated action movies that some describe as guilty pleasures. There is nothing guilty about the pleasure of viewing either of them, especially Beowulf.

The movie succeeds on many levels. The animation is very well done and the 3D effects are amazing. Despite the occasional spear coming out of the screen, the 3D effects were not overdone. Mostly 3D gave the picture a fuller and more real look with depth.

There were three previews before the movie for 3D movies coming next year. 3D could help the business. Not that it would add much to dramas or romantic comedies, but it would work really well in more action-oriented films. It might give more people a reason to shell out big bucks for the theater experience instead of waiting for the DVD.

Beowulf is not a straight telling of the ancient poem. The writers changed the plot in ways that gave the movie a bit of a modern sensibility. The original unalloyed heroic story is replaced by a story about a flawed man who does heroic things but also is corrupt.

The movie becomes more of a tragedy with Beowulf's tragic flaws being his weakness for lust combined with a vain ambition for glory and power which cause him to divert from being heroic and also make him willing to live a lie to get what he wants for himself. He's not an evil person but he's not a pure hero, either. The changes make him a more interesting character for a modern audience.

The role of Grendel's mother is interesting. She is played by a smoking hot naked Angelina Jolie. Even animated it's impossible to hide Jolie's sex appeal. It's a very scary sex appeal but it's an appeal, nonetheless.

Grendel's mother takes on a much larger role in the movie than she does in the poem. The plot involves her as the bearer of Hrothgar's child and Beowulf's and is the most consequential deviation from the original poem. The change has major thematic consequences. It could be read as a bit misogynistic. Our brave male heroes are destroyed by a tempting seductress who uses her sexual power to corrupt their heroic souls. That's too simplistic though since she is merely as ambitious as the men and she uses the power she has to get what she wants, just as they do. The men are easily corruptable because of their vanity, pride, and large ambition, and they are entirely willing participants.

The movie seems to have a bit of a cynical take. That's strongly suggested in the very last scene when Beowulf's successor encounters Grendel's mother and we're left wondering what he'll do. One on level that final scene is neutral because it doesn't show what the new king does and perhaps it just shows that corruption is tempting to all leaders. But the expression in his eyes suggests strongly that he will work out his own arrangement with Grendel's mother. That's modern cynicism there and is in keeping with the movie's portrayal of heroes as having feet of clay.

Another interesting twist regards Grendel. In the original, Grendel is a descendant of Cain and is an outcast from society because he is evil. Society's rejection of Grendel is not examined or viewed as wrong. The movie changes that by making Grendel an outcast from his own father, thus elevating his moral status from deserved outcast as a descendant of Cain, to undeserved outcast betrayed by his father. It also portrays him as a victim, driven to violence by the sounds that torture him because of his very sensitive hearing. That doesn't justify his murderous rampage but making the monster a bit of a victim is another modern twist. It allows the story to suggest that Beowulf and Hrothgar are as much monsters as Grendel, if not worse. Grendel commits horrible violence to ease his severe physical pain. Beowulf and Hrothgar are violent in pursuit of their own glory and power.

There is much more in Beowulf. The movie is worth seeing not just for its incredible visuals but also for the thought-provoking themes in its story. Get to a theater and plunk down your money. You'll get cool souvenier 3D glasses as a bonus.



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