Documentary ‘Social Animals’ delves into power and pressure of social media stardom

Nothing marks the digital age quite like a documentary that explores the complexities of young people and Instagram. “Social Animals” sets out to do this, and it does so brilliantly.

“Social Animals.”

The film tells the story of three Instagramers and how the platform has completely taken over their lives. Each of them comes from different backgrounds: a mansion in California, the projects in New York, a Midwest country home. All use Instagram for different reasons. While one wants to be a model and start her own fashion line, another does it out of a love for photography, and yet another does it to fit in at school.

They’re all teens, making their way through life, and the added stress of keeping up with Instagram isn’t making that any easier.

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It’s a life their parents struggle to understand. There are new rules for everything previous generations once knew: dating culture, friend wars, school bullying. All of it feels like an unfamiliar monster gradually seeping into our culture, leaving behind nothing but nostalgia for a time when people argued face to face and flirted over phone calls.

Two of the three individuals are “Instafamous.” At one point, their celebrity status is questioned, and the model specifically says she doesn’t see herself that way.

Technically, they have fans and are in the public eye. It’s scary how some of their followers feel a sense of ownership over them. Instagram accounts often allow them to create a brand for themselves as well.

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So are they celebrities?

Maybe, but whether they actually fall into the category of celebrity is irrelevant when they’re being treated like one.

And even though Instagram is available to everyone with a smartphone and can seem like a trivial platform used for pictures of your dog or your french toast, there’s a level of skill involved in doing what they do.

“Social Animals” also dives into this generation’s desire for validation. At the heart of every social media account, no matter the individual, is a person counting their likes. It’s almost like a drug in that sense: addictive and used to create an alternate reality.

However, with each new batch of followers comes a price. The film doesn’t shy away from the level of harassment and bullying experienced through Instagram that can take a toll on a young person. For the teen who just wants to live her life and foster genuine friendships, Instagram makes school a cold, harsh place. Her hardships caused by social media cover a portion of the documentary that will truly have you tearing up. It’s an upsetting, frightening reality that followers don’t always equal friends.

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With all their widespread popularity, the other two subjects are not without their social media issues, either. While the model is ogled by creepy, old, obsessive men, the photographer experiences how easily followers can turn sour.

A good documentary doesn’t necessarily answer questions or pose solutions, but rather raises more questions. No hour and a half film was ever going to provide a complete analysis of the repercussions of social media, if such an anomaly can even be reckoned with in the first place. It’s a complex issue we’re only now being able to scratch the surface of.

That being said, 20 to 30 years from now, whether Instagram is still popular or not, this film will stand as a great documentation of the problematic role social media plays in this generation.

“Social Animals” had its world premiere Friday at South by Southwest and screens again at 11:30 a.m. March 14 at Alamo South Lamar. Grade: A

‘Constructing Albert’: A chef with a wild idea and a wild devotion to his family

If you’re an active social media user, your feeds are probably filled every day with people taking photographs of their meals, whether or not the food they’re eating is really worthy of being captured.

“Constructing Albert.”

Over the course of an award-winning career, Spanish restaurateur Albert Adrià has been responsible for crafting wildly original meals and desserts that actually are works of art. He was still a teenager when he joined his older brother Ferran to oversee the pastry department at elBulli, their Michelin 3-star restaurant in Catalonia. When the decision was made to close in the summer of 2011, elBulli had already been named best restaurant in the world five times over. What comes next after that kind of success? If you’re Albert, you take a year or two off to start a family.

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When the documentary “Constructing Albert,” from co-directors Laura Collado and Jim Loomis, gets underway in the spring of 2013, Albert is referred to as one of the world’s most underrated chefs. And if you’re being underrated, the natural instinct of most people would not be to open multiple new concepts in the same general area of a city. But that is exactly what he decided to do.

The film chronicles Albert’s journey from 2013 to the end of 2016. It offers an incredible opportunity to examine the raw creativity of a man obsessed with reinventing food concepts and expanding the way people view gastronomy. We are offered a simple fly-on-the-wall perspective – there are no talking heads, no outside perspectives positing on his next steps. The only time that creeps into the narrative at all is when we sit in on occasional interviews between Albert and food journalists from around the world trying to make sense of his plans and when his brother Ferran weighs in as new concepts are floated.

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It doesn’t just seem crazy when Albert declares that he’s going to launch five new restaurants over the course of one year; it seems downright impossible. In the world of business, one can be successful without passion for what one is doing if you make the right connections. In the world of food, it mostly balances on the team you put together in your kitchen.

Within the first year, two of Albert’s new eateries are lauded with their first Michelin stars, but one of them is audaciously killed off with the notion of reinventing it. He succinctly sums up his plan by saying that if you “sell an Audi to buy a Ferrari, there’s no need to cry.”

Despite the evident chaos in juggling new locations and multiple food genres, there is always joy on Albert’s face whenever his son comes into the room. He’ll stop whatever he is doing to hug him tightly or kick a soccer ball around on the street outside. “Constructing Albert” introduces us to an intensely focused man who values his family and the people who help bring his ideas to life as much as he does forging a new path in the culinary world.

“Constructing Albert” screens again at 4:45 p.m. March 12 at Alamo Lamar and at 2:15 p.m. March 16 at Stateside. Grade: B

There’s no SXSW partying in Austin for young actor Charlie Plummer

Charlie Plummer isn’t 21 yet, but he’s already making a name for himself in such films as “All the Money in the World” and “Lean on Pete,” which premiered Friday at South by Southwest.

“Lean on Pete” director Andrew Haigh and star Charlie Plummer. Contributed by Charles Ealy

He was chatting with journalists Saturday morning, along with director Andrew Haigh, who’s probably best known for “Weekend,” “45 Years” and the HBO series “Looking.”

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Haigh and Plummer were doing interviews bright and early Saturday, while many folks were still recovering from a late Friday evening. But Haigh explained that Plummer isn’t old enough to get into bars, so they weren’t out late.

Plummer says one of his favorite parts of being in “Lean on Pete” was reuniting with Steve Buscemi, who plays an owner/trainer of a racehorse called Lean on Pete at Portland Meadows in Portland, Ore.

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Plummer met Buscemi when Plummer was cast as a young boy in a recurring role on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”

If his performance in “Lean on Pete” is any guide, Plummer is going to be a busy young actor in the coming years. Next up, he says, is “Spontaneous,” a film where high-schoolers spontaneously combust.

Noting the difference in movies, Plummer says he “doesn’t want to get it in a rut, even though” his current rut is a “pretty good rut.”

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‘A Quiet Place’ scares, thrills an enthusiastic opening night crowd at South by Southwest

** mild spoilers ahead, but we do our best to keep them to a minimum**

“A Quiet Place”

There are few things that will spoil a filmmaker more than the unbridled enthusiasm of a SXSW opening night crowd at the Paramount. The cheers, the venue, the screaming (especially, perhaps, from those SXSW first-timers who choose front row balcony seats without realizing those seats were made when most people were about 5’5″) — it is an ego boost for the ages.

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There is much to enjoy about “A Quite Place,” but one would do well not to pull on any of the plot threads, lest it unravel.

John Krasinski, directing only his third feature from a script by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck and Krasinski, delivers a solid genre picture with a remarkably high concept that folks seemed to go nuts for Friday night.

Starring Krasinski, his real-life wife Emily Blunt, and two terrific child actors (Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe), “A Quiet Place” is a bit of a challenge to discuss without giving too much away.

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A title card says “DAY 89.” There’s an abandoned town, a wall of missing person flyers, no signs of life — everyone is long gone. A family moves very quietly through an abandoned drug store, looking for supplies. A child wants a toy; the father tells him in sign language that it is too noisy. (One of the children is deaf, played by real-life deaf actress Simmons — all of the family knows ASL, which comes in mighty handy when you have to be quiet all the time.)

There is a reason everyone is keeping mum, but we don’t yet know why. Minutes later, the “why” becomes all too clear: a sound is made, tragedy strikes, swift and violent. The situation recalls “The Road,” “The Walking Dead” and, say, “Alien” all at once. It’s a striking start — Krasinski, who has struggled a bit finding his directorial voice and is a guy who’s admitted not being much of a genre fan, might have a flair for genre pictures, perhaps the way Nicholas Meyers, who wasn’t much of a sci-fi guy, ended up being the perfect choice for “Star Trek II.”

Cut to “DAY 472.” The family, cannily unnamed, continue to live their life on a secluded farm in near-silence — if they make a sound, they will probably die. But family life, with its complicated dynamics, must go on. Blunt and Krasinski do a strong job as parents who must keep their family alive, educated and as normal as possible.

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Which doesn’t make “A Quiet Place” a silent film; indeed, sound — its presence, its absence, its potential — is massively important to the story.  A cochlear implant and its functionality are key plot points — this is a movie about what you can and cannot hear as much as anything you see on screen.

Which makes things a bit frustrating when MASSIVE stabs from the score emphasize jump-scare moments.

Kudos to the filmmakers for not slathering the action in music but one wishes for even less — once you have established that sound  = death, almost any non-diagetic music or sound feels like an invasion. Our suspension of disbelief is hanging by a thread as it is, as the audience really is left a bit in the dark as to the situation the rest of the world is in. Is this the last family alive? Have communications really become so spare? Just how silent must these folks be (it seems to change in a few spots).

As the story unfolds, it’s clear “A Quiet Place” works best as a tense fable, a “Twilight Zone” blown into 90 often-gripping minutes — What can we do to protect our children? What if they cannot be protected? In upstate New York, can anyone hear you scream?

GRADE: B-

SXSW 2018: ‘Final Portrait’ a look at the frustrations of creating art, with Armie Hammer as the muse

“Final Portrait.”

Let’s say you’re going to make a movie about the celebrated 20th century artist Alberto Giacometti, and you’re going to set the film in his Parisian studio, while he’s painting the portrait of a young man who’s not only an admirer but also his future biographer.

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That’s what Giacometti did with the well-bred, upper-class writer James Lord, who eventually wrote a memoir about the experience, “A Giacometti Portrait.”

One of the first things you’ll need to have is a first-rate set, with detailed reproductions of the artist’s famed elongated sculptures and other items. And if you’re going to sustain the movie, you’re obviously going to have to have good dialogue. And you’ll need even more. You’ll need characters coming into the studio over and over again, gradually revealing the lives of the artist and the subject.

That’s what happens in Stanley Tucci’s new film, “Final Portrait,” which made its debut Friday night at South by Southwest. Geoffrey Rush stars as Giacometti, while Armie Hammer, fresh off acclaim for “Call Me by Your Name” and honors from the Austin Film Society, plays Lord.

To Tucci’s credit, the movie flows well. The dialogue isn’t as snappy as that in a play by Edward Albee or David Mamet, but the intrusion of characters during the portrait sessions provides lots of tension, humor and sadness.

First, there’s Giacometti’s wife, Annette, played by the wonderful French actress Sylvie Testud, virtually unknown in the U.S. despite her pairing with Marion Cotillard in “La Vie en Rose.”

She’s a rather sad presence in “Final Portrait,” mainly because she plays second fiddle to Giacometti’s favorite prostitute, Caroline (Clemence Poesy).

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And then there’s Giacometti’s wry brother, Diego (Tony Shalhoub), who offers his own interpretation of events as they unfold before Lord’s rather stoic posing.

The heart of the movie, however, lies in the bond between Giacometti and Lord. Giacometti repeatedly paints over the portrait of Lord, telling him that it’s not right, that it’s a failure, that it might always be a failure. But Lord keeps coming back, for session after session, finally wondering when the posing and the painting will ever end.

For Giacometti, it’s a classic artistic problem – that the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it.

So it’s up to Lord to figure out a way to end the sessions, without offense, without recriminations but with collegiality.

It’s a delicate minuet. And Tucci, who gets fine performances from Rush and Hammer, manages to pull it off. It won’t please the blockbuster crowd. It’s a subtle rumination on the creation of art.

“Final Portrait” premiered at SXSW on Friday. It screens again at 9 p.m. Saturday at the AFS Cinema. Grade: B

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SXSW 2018: Austin director’s ‘1985’ tells story of family and secrets during the AIDS crisis

In “1985,” adapted from his own award-winning short film, Austin-based director Yen Tan has fleshed out a poignant storyline about a closeted young Texan who returns home to visit his conservative family for Christmas.

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Adrian (Cory Michael Smith, Fox’s “Gotham”) left everything behind and got as far away from his past as humanly possible after graduation. We never see his life in New York, but it clearly has allowed him to live openly far from the judgment at home. He speaks vaguely of roommates, quietly changing the subject when asked about them or if he’s dating anybody at the moment.

“1985.”

His father, Dale (Michael Chiklis), is a gruff Vietnam veteran who works in an auto shop and, when home, is often acutely tuned in to talk radio. His mother, Eileen (Virginia Madsen), is softer and kinder in every way, admitting in a hushed conversation that she “didn’t vote for Reagan last year.” The core household beliefs under Dale are guided by religion, strict discipline and a general avoidance of secular culture. This doesn’t make things easy for Andrew (Aidan Langford), Adrian’s younger brother, who secretly listens to a Madonna cassette with headphones on and has shifted his focus at school from sports to the theater.

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Returning to Texas is not strictly about celebrating Christmas. Adrian lands back at home with a mission to finally be honest with his family, not only letting them know he is gay but to also inform them that he has AIDS. Faced with the uncertainty of their response, he instead tries to reconnect and start out with his friend Carly (Jamie Chung), someone he has had a falling out with since moving away.

Shot on Kodak Super 16 film stock, the stark black-and-white cinematography provides many shadowy shots that fall in line with Adrian’s inability to be truthful to the people he loves most. A huge part of his life is hidden in plain sight, or it would be if he lived closer. If his health wasn’t closing on him, sexuality is something that he may not have ever felt that he could be open about with them.

Smith superbly expresses the struggle of a character who is desperately trying to hold everything inside, but my favorite performance here comes from Chung. She initially has to deliver a woman who is angry with her best friend, a person whom she has known since they were 10 and has possibly loved as long. It isn’t until Adrian finally breaks down and tells her the truth about what he is facing and what he has already lost that she is able to realize that the situation is much bigger than her feelings of rejection. Even though they don’t have as much screen time, Madsen and Chiklis each have powerful moments in the script that could’ve faltered with less experienced actors.

Knowing the history of the AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s, it’s unlikely that Adrian was able to walk away with a storybook ending. Despite the subject matter, “1985” rarely dips into maudlin territory. It wisely chooses instead to celebrate unconditional love and the notion that what we have in common is greater than what divides us.

“1985” screened Friday at South by Southwest and plays again at 6:30 p.m. March 10 at AFS; 7:15 p.m. March 13 at Rollins; and 9 p.m. March 15 at Stateside. Grade: B-

SXSW 2018: ‘Lean on Pete’ shows why Charlie Plummer is destined to be a star

“Lean on Pete” tugs at the heartstrings in the best way, and most of that tugging is the direct result of the acting of Charlie Plummer, who appears poised to become one of our most versatile young stars.

In “Pete,” the 18-year-old who played John Paul Getty III in “All the Money in the World” is guided by the low-key yet distinctive British director Andrew Haigh, whose earlier credits include “45 Years,” “Weekend” and HBO’s “Looking.”

Plummer plays Charley Thompson, who’s being raised by his single father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), and the two have recently moved to Portland, Ore., because of work. Charley likes to go on runs during the summer vacation and discovers that they’re living near a quarter horse racetrack. He’s fascinated with the track and especially with a horse named Lean on Pete, who is owned and trained by the cranky Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi).

Del notices that Charley isn’t afraid to pitch in and help in order to be around Pete, so he offers him a part-time job. While at work, Charley also meets Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny), a local jockey who is good friends with Del.

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All of this sounds fairly straightforward – and somewhat old-fashioned – from a narrative perspective. And the movie is indeed traditional. But the movie stands out from many others because of Plummer’s performance. It’s hard to watch him and not understand the loneliness and need for connection that’s just under Charley’s skin. And the scenes between Charley and the horse are classic in the way that they develop the bonding between a teen and an animal.

Without giving away too many spoilers, Charley’s home life takes a drastic turn for the worse, and then so does his life at the track. So Charley takes off with Pete on an epic journey to find his aunt – whom he has not seen in many years but remembers fondly.

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For the cynical among us, the narrative might smack of sentimentality, like an afternoon family TV movie. The cynical among us would be wrong when it comes to “Lean on Pete.” Yes, it’s hard not to shed tears throughout Charley’s ordeal, but Haigh does not hammer us over the head. Instead, he shows Charley’s resilience, his longing for love and his desire to finally find a safe home – for him and the horse.

The book is based on a novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin. He and Haigh worked on adapting it for the big screen.

But this movie is all about Plummer’s Charley. Go see it, and you’ll understand why. The guy has acting chops – in spades.

“Lean on Pete’ had its South by Southwest premiere on Friday. It screens again at 6:15 p.m. March 11 at the AFS Cinema and 2:15 p.m. March 14 at the Alamo South. Grade: B+

SXSW 2018: Armie Hammer is in Austin, and the ‘CMBYN’ star isn’t worried about any social media spats

Armie Hammer says he thinks actor James Woods “must have blocked me on Twitter” because he hasn’t “heard a word” from Woods since a dustup on social media.

Actor Armie Hammer at the Four Seasons on Friday. Contributed by Charles Ealy

It all started back in November, just before the release of “Call Me by Your Name,” when Woods got riled up about the movie about a romantic gay relationship between a 24-year-old graduate student and a 17-year-old son of a professor.

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In the movie, Hammer plays the grad student, while Timothee Chalamet plays the youth. (Chalamet is in his 20s.). In a tweet about the movie, Woods acted aghast over the subject matter, saying that the film was quietly chipping away “the last barriers of decency.”

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When Hammer, 31, saw the tweet, he responded to Woods by pointing out that he has dated young women, writing, “Didn’t you date a 19 year old when you were 60…….?”

Indeed, several reports have mentioned Woods’ penchant for dating women either 19 or 20.

And then actress Amber Tamblyn entered the Twitter storm, saying Woods hit on her when she was a teenager – and tried to take her to Vegas.

Hammer, who was in Austin to receive an award from the Austin Film Society and to promote Friday’s premiere of his new movie, “Final Portrait,” seems to be enjoying himself around town – and he says he’s not all bothered by being blocked by Woods. He’ll be on the red carpet for “Final Portrait” – promoting another movie in which he plays a gay character, James Lord, the biographer of artist Alberto Giacometti.

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SXSW 2018: A few things we learned at the ‘Ready Player One’ VR experience

A light tunnel leads to the OASIS at the “Ready Player One” experience during the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, March 8, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

In anticipation of the March 29 release of Steven Spielberg’s new action adventure, “Ready Player One,” attendees at this year’s South by Southwest Conference and Festivals can check out the immersive Ready Player One Experience with Vive VR. The two-story installation is at Brazos Hall on East Fourth Street from March 9-11; there was a preview party March 8.

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Let’s discuss it. All quotes are from a news release about the event.

“The RFID wristband (guests receive at the entrance) will keep score as guests test their knowledge of `80s trivia.”

Anyone over 40 will crush the trivia. The down side is then you get to see millennials totally stumped by questions about, like, Richard Pryor being in “Superman III,” and then you feel incredibly, monstrously old and begin eyeing the bar with a very certain desperation as you start counting the number of SXSWs you have covered.

“Visitors can browse at Avatar Outfitters, offering the Hot Topic Ready Player One Pop-Up Shop.  Guests will have a chance to score officially licensed gear, including exclusive T-shirts, caps, jewelry, backpacks, collectible pins and other cool accessories, as well as fan-favorite Funko Pop! vinyl figures.”

This is a merch shop. I took photos of the stuff and sent them to my 9-year-old, who recently finished the book and loved it and is very excited indeed for the movie. One of these days, FunkoPops are going to all move to the next phase of their evolution and kill us all, I just know it.

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“Guests can try out the “Ready Player One” Avatar Creator by VIVE to choose their new digital identity, and then send the avatar to their personal email.”

I did this, and because I am kind of terrible at many, many video game things (ex: I am pretty sure I called my avatar “Joe”), my avatar managed to look EXACTLY like me with small tweaks. IRL, I do not have a large disk in the middle of my head, nor am I made of wood and wouldn’t tuck jeans into boots — in fact, why is that even an option?

I mean, really. ( JOE GROSS/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

“Drop into 2045’s hottest nightclub, The Distracted Globe, where infinity mirrors create the impression of being gravity-free for a cool photo op, and guests can enjoy ‘Ready Player One’-themed specialty cocktails.”

There was never more than one person in there at a time when I was there, but I bet it looked pretty cool filled up.

The Distracted Globe, a nightclub in “Ready Player One,” attempts to create the feeling of being gravity free with infinity mirrors at the “Ready Player One” experience during the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, March 8, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

It seemed like the DJ was cutting together every single hit from 1982 or so to 1989. At one point Eric B and Rakin’s “I Know You Got Soul” cut right at “pump up the volume” into the stripped down bit from “Jack and Diane,” of all things, instead of Bomb the Bass’s “Beat Dis,” as God intended, and it was kind of an existential crisis for everyone, again, over 40. Everyone else’s face held a a very “Whatever, man” expression, which is probably the correct response.

The second floor featured an installation that looked like the stacks of mobile homes envisioned in the book (and movie).

On the roof. ( JOE GROSS/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Each “trailer” featured one or two VR rigs that had various VR versions of classic arcade games and “RP1”-inspired “experiences.”

Raymond Wong plays a VR game at the “Ready Player One” experience during the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, March 8, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

I was also very bad at this. I picked the DJ one and just kind of stood there for a bit, switching between various points-of-view. Make sure the headset fits TIGHTLY on your head — I didn’t, and the bleed-through from outside noise was substantial, which pretty well takes you out of the moment.

Want more? “On March 10, the SXSW Film Festival will hold its 25th Edition party, celebrating the anniversary of the film festival, at the Experience. On Sunday, March 11, the venue will hold a livestream, Ready Player One LIVE at SXSW, powered by Twitch and IMDb, hosted by Aisha Tyler and correspondent Alex Correa. The stream will be live on http://www.twitch.tv/twitch and http://www.imdb.com/readyplayerone and will feature some of the stars and filmmakers from “Ready Player One,” including cast members Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki, Philip Zhao and Ben Mendelsohn; screenwriter Zak Penn; and author/screenwriter/co-producer Ernest Cline.”

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